Originally published August 9, 2012 at noon, updated August 9, 2012 at 1:18 p.m.
Harley McDonald, Iberdrola Renewables' California developer, Tule Wind Project
Donna Tisdale, Chair Boulevard Planning Group
Two major energy projects slated for eastern San Diego County were approved this week by the San Diego Board of Supervisors. The board granted permits to the Tule Wind Power Project, which consists of almost 100 wind turbines on 725 acres in McCain Valley. The board also approved transmission lines that would carry power generated by wind turbines in Baja California to a San Diego Gas & Electric substation near Jacumba. Both were approved despite strong opposition from Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
"They are two particularly small pieces of a bigger puzzle, a much bigger picture,'' Jacob said. "It's that bigger picture I'm very, very concerned about because I believe this is the beginning of the industrialization of our back country.''
The Tule Wind Power Project encompasses land under jurisdiction of the county, federal Bureau of Land Management, Ewiiaapaayp Indian Reservation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and California State Lands Commission. The BLM has already granted approval for 62 turbines but declined 34 others.
Harley McDonald, a spokeswoman for the project's developer, Iberdrola Renewables Inc, told KPBS they chose the McCain Valley area "because it has wind."
"It's one of the few places left in California that has wind viable to use for a utilities project," she said.
But Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, said her community opposes the project because the turbines emit low frequency noise, vibration and electrical pollution through “stay voltage that’s discharged into the ground and migrates into people’s homes.”
Tisdale said she’s received complaints that existing turbines are making people in a 3 mile radius sick.
“We need to know what’s happening there before anyone else approves any other turbines so close to home,” she said.
But McDonald said health studies on turbines have been conducted for several years and no health impacts have been found. She added the turbines approved will be at least a mile away from all homes.
Tisdale countered that when looking at scientific research, “you’re not going to find what you’re not looking for.”
“What the wind industry does borders on fraud,” she added.
The portion considered by the supervisors consists of five turbines and various associated facilities, including a substation, transmission lines and towers, a 5,000-square-foot operations and maintenance building, and improvements to nearby roadways.
The county Planning Commission recommended that permits for the turbines be denied and that the transmission lines to connect the power to the main line be undergrounded. But a motion by Supervisor Bill Horn to include the five turbines passed 3-2, with Supervisor Pam Slater-Price joining Jacob in dissent. Horn’s motion also specified that if BLM decides not to underground the transmission lines on its land, the lines do not need to be undergrounded on county land either.
There are seven known archeological sites in the path of the project and undergrounding the lines will be opposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still has to give its approval to the project.
The project is expected to provide enough power for about 60,000 homes in San Diego County. For reference, that is a tiny fraction of the power provided by the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which generates enough energy to power more than a million homes when it is operating. San Onofre is currently off line and backers of the Tule wind farm cited the need to find alternatives, should the nuclear plant fail to be brought back up.
However Supervisors’ main motive for approving the project was to meet California state guidelines that set an ambitious goal of generating a third of the state’s energy with renewables by 2020. The aim is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.
Tisdale said that renewable energy goal could be met using solar panels on rooftops.
But Jason Anderson of CleanTECH San Diego told the county supervisors the sun does not always shine and San Diego needs a diverse mix of energy sources, including wind.
“If we are serious about continuing to lead the transformation to renewable energy resources, and driving innovation forward, we cannot reject this project, “ Anderson said.
Tisdale said her community welcomed the first group of turbines when they were installed, but now believes turbines should not be within 5 or 6 miles of homes, near endangered species or near sensitive areas.
The Tule Wind project is one of several wind projects in the works for the wilderness area in the mountains overlooking the desert east of San Diego. Supervisor Dianne Jacob said that if all the projects are approved there could be up to 400 wind turbines located in east county.
The other project approved this week by the supervisors is a transmission line to carry energy produced by wind turbines at the Energia Sierra Juarez plant in Baja California to San Diego County. The proposed lines would run less than one mile from the Mexican border to the SDG&E substation. Whether the project is actually built remains uncertain because the wind farm has not received final approval from Mexican authorities.
Both projects faced opposition for their environmental and health impacts and worries from residents over fire danger. County staff told the supervisors that studies of possible health impacts on residents living near wind turbines are inconclusive.
The county’s new General Plan Update has limited growth in the back country in order to minimize the danger of wild fires. The turbines and the transmission lines will pose an additional risk. The company agreed to contribute to fire protection efforts and install four large, open-topped tanks of water for use by fire fighting helicopters.
McDonald said turbines are spaced so that they will never touch, even in high winds, which is what caused previous turbine fires. She said the spacing also “helps avoid any avian impacts.”
She said the county’s fire agency told the Board of Supervisors Iberdrola’s fire protection plan is “state of the art” and that they are happy with it.
But Tisdale said a retired Cal Fire battalion chief disagreed with that assessment and said Iberdrola has had at least three fires on their turbines since May.
McDonald said Iberdrola now needs to obtain building permits and hopes to start construction within a year.
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.