Windmills unmoving in crisis : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Windmills unmoving in crisis BY PETER FELSENFELD


LIVERMORE -- In the midst of rolling blackouts and skyrocketing power bills, the thousands of energy-producing windmills along the Altamont Pass remain dormant not because of policy, politics or any other manmade concoction.

There isn't enough wind.

"Generally speaking, summertime is the wind season up there," said Alameda County planner Bruce Jensen. "You don't get the common funneling effect there in the winter."

Every summer, cool winds from the Pacific sweep through the Altamont Pass, filling the gap created by rising hot air in the Central Valley. Those winds die down in the winter as the temperature differential decreases between the coast and the state's inland areas.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, around 80 percent of California's wind energy is generated between April and October -- coinciding with California's peak-demand season.

During the non-blustery winter months, most Altamont Pass power companies either turn off the turbines or set them to turn on automatically when wind speeds reach 13 miles per hour, the minimum needed to justify their operation.

Although the approximately 5,000 Altamont Pass windmills offer little succor in the current crisis, energy officials warn of a long-term shortage, almost certain to last through the summer. And the state's predicament figures to offer both the best and worst of times for wind energy providers.

While some renewable energy companies recognize inherent opportunities during energy shortages, wind energy suppliers aren't confident PG&E could buy their power, even if it was generated.

"There are many forces acting in different directions," said Tim Tutt, assistant program manager at California's Renewable Energy Program. "The current situation is so uncertain and things are changing so fast that companies have tough decisions to make."

Wind energy generates around 1 percent of California's total consumption, Tutt said. However, windmill technology advances in the early '90s increased output and decreased costs as gas prices fluctuated.

"Lately, there's been an awareness of the fact that too much emphasis has been placed on gas," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "And that was before the prices started exploding."

The newest turbines, standing more than 200 feet high, generate 4.5 million kilowatts hours per year, enough to serve 450 households. The older 100-kilowatt turbines that still predominate on the Altamont Pass produce less than one-seventh the power.

PG&E's financial woes have dissuaded some major wind providers from installing the new technology. FPL Energy, a subsidiary of Florida Power & Light, is one of three companies that settled a lawsuit last year allowing them to construct large windmills on Altamont Pass.

Downwind companies had complained the larger machines would usurp their wind.

Carol Clawson, manager of corporate communications for FPL Energy, said the company's plans are on hold.

"We can't proceed with that project without a better sense of PG&E's ability to pay for the power," Clawson said. "We're very concerned about the future and the total uncertainty in the energy market."

Alameda County zoning administrator Darryl Gray said companies have contacted his office with offers to build new turbines on county property. Most of the existing Altamont Pass turbines -- which extend into Contra Costa County -- are functioning or under repair, he said.

"I do believe the current energy situation has fueled additional interest in redeveloping the Altamont," Gray said.

-- Martin Thompson (, January 23, 2001

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