Call NOW — the vote is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8:
District One: Greg Cox (board chair), (619) 531-5522
District Two: Dianne Jacob, (619) 531-5522
District Three: Dave Roberts, (619) 531-5533
District Four: Ron Roberts, (619) 531-5544
District Five: Bill Horn, (619) 531-5555
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
David Elliott and Donna Tisdale
Map showing current and future wind and solar installations planned for East County
Schematic drawing showing just how large the wind turbines will be. The blade assembly alone is as large as a Boeing 747 jetliner!
On Wednesday, May 8, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a new ordinance and community plan amendment that will essentially destroy the rural character of San Diego County’s back country in the name of so-called “green energy.” It will do this by vastly expanding the land area in San Diego’s East County available for giant wind-turbine and solar electricity installations. The County action is part of a major push by giant energy corporations and developers to build huge facilities that are being ballyhooed as part of a necessary transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources — but, according to opponents, they’re really inefficient and destructive projects that will destroy the communities and habitats of East County and do precious little to help develop truly environmentally friendly energy sources.
The opponents held a rally and press conference outside the County Administration Center on Harbor Drive downtown May 6 at 1 p.m. to explain why they oppose the giant wind developments in East County and what they think the Board of Supervisors should be doing instead. Chair of the event was Donna Tisdale, longtime East County resident and founding organizer of Backcountry Against Dumps, a group she started in the 1980’s to keep a major landfill project from being built in East County. She brought a number of fellow back country residents to talk about what they’ve been going through thanks to the wind projects that already exist in East County, and to plead with the County Supervisors to block the construction of any more of them.
“I live in close proximity to the turbines,” said David Elliott, a member of the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Indians. “It’s been my experience since the turbines have gone in that I’ve suffered numerous adverse health effects. It started off with a heart attack. I’m perfectly healthy, very active, do not smoke, and it went from there. Now we have a whole list of things the energy or the magnetic frequencies from the turbines do to you, [including] sleep disturbance, [loss of] concentration and memory, dizziness, loss of balance. You have headaches. You have ringing in your ears. You have ear pressure or pain. You have heart fluttering and racing heart. I have that.” Elliott pointed to a number of other health effects, including some he’s experienced personally. “I now wear glasses, where before I didn’t,” he said.
One of the direct effects of the turbines on their neighbors is the constant noise they make, Elliott said. “You’re bothered by them if you’re driving by them and you’re going slow,” he explained. “You can hear the whoosh-whooh and the thump-thump. When the wind blows from certain directions, it becomes very intense. I’m on the east side of the ridge that has the turbines, and when the wind is coming out of the west I really get a high sound. And I can still hear them when the wind comes from the east. We used to think the freeway was a little too noisy. It doesn’t even begin to compare with those turbines. At certain times in the evening, when the wind is coming out of the west and those turbines are feathered just right, it sounds like two jets going overhead — except they never go past you. They’re just there, humming very loud.”
Jim Pelley, an aerospace engineer who moved to the East County community of Ocotillo — where a major wind development has already gone in — “to get away from the noise and industrialization of the city.” Only the industrialization followed him, and so did the noise. “I live right in the middle of the Ocotillo wind turbine project, 112 wind turbines surrounding my home,” he explained. “Wind turbines as close as one-half mile from my house. Every window in my house I look out of, I see wind turbines. Living next to this project has been an absolute nightmare. My life is forever changed. It feels like my home has been taken away from me. I am now experiencing health-related issues that I feel are a direct result of this project. I’m having trouble sleeping at night. I feel fatigued. I feel restless, even when I’m tired. I get headaches. My dogs are acting strangely. They’re shaking outside. They run in the house.”
According to Pelley, wind turbines make lousy neighbors. “When I come out of my front door, the first thing I see is wind turbines,” he said. “I don’t see the beautiful Coyote Mountains which are straight out from my home. My eyes are drawn to the wind turbines. At night, the first thing that I see when I come out of my door are the bright red flashing lights on the wind turbines. They are very disturbing. These red lights flash and can be seen all over, throughout my house and all the way as far as El Centro. These lights have a laser shine that hurts your eyes. We like to sleep with our windows open, but if the wind is blowing it sounds like we are sleeping on an aircraft carrier with jets taking off.”
But Pelley’s complaints about the turbines go far beyond just what they’ve done to him personally. “These projects are not ‘green,’” he explained. “The carbon footprint of the Ocotillo wind project is bigger than anybody will ever know. The first-quarter reports from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] indicated that the electrical power produced by the Ocotillo project is way below expectations. This project is supposed to yield 34 percent of generating capacity, but based on the first-quarter reports from FERC, the power output appears to be closer to 19 percent.”
Just why that is was explained by attorney Bill Page, who wasn’t at the May 6 press conference but addressed the issue at a community meeting in Hillcrest April 15 sponsored by Activist San Diego. Stonewalled by the local companies — who declared their measurements of wind speed on the site “proprietary information” and refused to share them with him — Page went to Siemens, the German company that actually built the turbines. What he found was that the most each of these turbines can generate is 2.3 megawatts of electricity, and whether they come anywhere near that number depends on how fast the wind blows.
Page showed a graph from Siemens documenting that the efficiency of the turbines drops dramatically as the wind speed slows, and that in order for them to produce enough electricity to be useful, the wind has to be blowing between 24 and 30 miles per hour. When the wind blows faster than 30 miles an hour, Page explained, it’s considered a storm and the turbines are shut down for safety reasons. According to Page’s figures, the actual wind speed in the East County area is a shade under 14 miles per hour — and that means the system will power 10,000 to 14,000 homes, not the 94,000 to 125,000 the developers and project supporters claim. Page said that there are only a few places in the world — “off the coast of Ireland and some parts of Mongolia” — where the wind regularly blows at the 25-mile-per-hour speed needed to make these Siemens turbines work.
The speakers at the May 6 event essentially made three kinds of arguments against the turbines. In addition to the horrors the turbines have brought to these regions and the people who live there, they also claimed that the projects are themselves environmentally destructive and are so inefficient they won’t make much of a dent in fossil-fuel consumption. Pelley’s speech highlighted the earthquake dangers from the turbines and the giant towers that carry them. “The foundations for these 450-foot tall monstrosities, sitting in sand, were not engineered for the area,” he explained. “Southern California has the highest seismic activity in the nation, but somehow standard, one-size-fits-all foundations were used on this project. Some of the wind turbines are actually sitting on the Elsinore fault line.” Pelley also claimed that the turbines already built at Ocotillo have “changed the hydrology” and increased the risk of a major flood.
Asked about another risk factor from the turbines — fire — Donna Tisdale explained that “the turbines actually hold several hundred gallons of oil up in their generators. Their invertors can hold an additional 500 gallons of oil. There can be up to thousands of gallons of oil per turbine. The substations and the switchyards all have a lot of oil. When the Sunrise Powerlink [a series of transmission lines through the desert built in spite of overwhelming community opposition] was built, one transformer in the Suncrest substation took 28,000 gallons of oil. These projects are being built in the back country, where we are ranked at the highest level of fire severity by CalFire [the statewide fire-fighting agency]. We don’t have fire hydrants everywhere because we don’t have water systems. We don’t have imported water. It’s all well water.”
To bolster her case that the turbines increase the fire risk in places that have already had severe fires, as anyone who lived in San Diego County in 2003 or 2007 will remember, Tisdale called on Mark Ostrander, a retired California fire battalion chief and East County resident. Ostrander came to the podium carrying a picture of a wind turbine on fire and said the presence of these turbines has dramatically increased the already severe risk of devastating wildfires in the East County area. He said the projects’ defenders have argued that there are low “fire currents” in East County, which has historically been true, but only because “there is no infrastructure out there, and very little foot traffic. Now we’re going to put in all this infrastructure, with the potential for starting fire.”
And what’s more, he added, the fires the turbines start in East County won’t stay in East County. Both Ostrander and Tisdale said that as the turbines catch fire, their blades will collapse and hot bits of wind-blade debris will spread with the wind. Then some of these bits will land on combustible material in the city of San Diego, and wherever else the wind takes it, and start fires there. “If you look at one of these burning, you see this stuff falling down,” Ostrander explained. “They’ll catch it [in San Diego] in an east wind.” Ostrander also pointed out that most of the East County communities don’t even have professional firefighters — they rely on volunteer fire departments — and when the turbine installations catch fire even the most experienced firefighters will just have to let them burn and concentrate on controlling how the fires spread.
They won’t have water to fight the flames because they don’t have conventional water delivery systems. They won’t be able to drop fire retardant on the blazes from the air — the main way the devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007 were fought and finally brought under control — because it’ll be too risky for the planes to fly into areas with huge heat levels as well as spinning turbine blades and power lines. Ostrander pointed out that because it’s so difficult to fight fires that start on airplanes, “every one of our major airports has a dedicated fire department that stays there 24/7 to fight aircraft fires.” He said a similarly specialized crew will have to be maintained to fight the fires the wind turbines will cause.
It’s because of the risks, including the potential environmental hazards from any sort of development of the back country, that the last time the County of San Diego updated its general plan they decided, as Ostrander explained, “to keep the rural areas rural because we didn’t have the infrastructure. Now they’re talking about industrial energy zones, and basically turning us into a major corridor, with all this electrical equipment and fire hazards. It’s unconscionable.”
Ironically, Ostrander owns a wind-powered electric generator himself. But it’s only 30 feet tall and it was designed and built to provide his own energy needs. When he first set it up, he said, it generated half the electricity he used at home. It’s an example of what he calls “point-of-need” energy distribution, which means abandoning the model of generating energy at large facilities, transmitting it over long distances to its users, and losing a lot of it along the way. “Point-of-need can be done through rooftop solar, through the tops of parking structures, and lots of other options,” Ostrander explained. “You can take ground that’s already been disturbed, where there are houses and buildings, and put up energy-efficient renewable projects.”
Other objections raised by the speakers at the May 6 press conference included the destruction of native plants, which will increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by getting rid of chaparral and other plants that sequester carbon; the chance that scraping so much soil off the earth’s surface could release valley fever and other microbes that cause disease; the likelihood that the turbine towers will conduct lightning to the earth’s surface and start fires that way; and the fact that they will produce only a small fraction of the energy their proponents claim for them. Ostrander said that in order to avoid imbalancing the power grid, the developers of large wind and solar installations will also have to build gas-fired “peaker plants” to fill in for the lost capacity when the wind doesn’t blow or the weather is cloudy — and at the April 15 Activist San Diego meeting, Bill Page said that the plan is to build 400 megawatts’ worth of fossil-fuel “peaker” capacity for every 250 megawatts the utilities ordering these plants buy from “renewable” sources.
Asked just why these projects are being pushed so hard when they’re environmentally destructive, dangerous and inefficient, Tisdale answered with one word: “MONEY!” She said the only reason these installations are economically viable is the federal subsidies former vice-president Dick Cheney and his friend, Enron CEO Ken Lay, got through Congress in 2005. “They made a plan where they made all these incentives, and then they milk the project, and then they can flip [resell] it, and the next owner can start the incentive process all over again. So it’s a big money-making thing — until the turbines fail.”