Endangered birds versus green energy in the Salinas Valley.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Charlie Wagner thought he would be doing something good for the environment by installing two wind turbines – the biggest in Monterey County – to take his River Road winery off the grid. Instead, Wagner’s green dream ruffled feathers of condor protectors.
The California Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for more studies and assurances that endangered California condors traversing between Pinnacles and Big Sur wouldn’t become chop suey. The Monterey County Planning Commission agreed. On Jan. 28 the commission required Conundrum Winery to complete a full environmental impact report for the 214-foot high turbines.
“THERE IS A LARGER ISSUE, AND THAT IS OUR DEPENDENCY ON OIL.”
But Wagner says he is giving up on the renewable energy project after already paying for bird studies and buying a turbine in Holland, an investment totaling more than $1 million. “I could see that we could do this EIR and be in the same place that we are right now but $250,000 less in the bank,” he says. “We thought we were doing a good thing. I got the feeling that the county wasn’t ready to move ahead on this green energy. It’s kind of reprehensible, in my mind. Even the president is calling for it.”
Ironically, Wagner adds, the same people who favor growing the condor population support green energy. “I would call it a conundrum,” he jokes.
Other wind turbine projects in the Salinas Valley have run into the same predicament: mitigating the impact on condors, a fully protected species, which number 44 in central California.
“Every single bird is an important part of the population,” says Kevin Hunting, deputy director of Fish and Game’s ecosystem conservation division.
Turbines are not only a perceived threat to condors; they could become a Cuisinart for raptors like golden eagles and migratory birds, too. Hunting says the Salinas Valley is not the most productive wind region in California, adding the state can meet its 33-percent renewable energy goal without compromising endangered species.
“If you look at the big picture in California, there is room for true green energy,” he says.
With more data, wildlife regulators say, there is potential to pinpoint wind turbine locations that don’t intersect with condor flight paths. “We’ll be talking with the county and others to come up with the best ways to approach the projects so they don’t affect the California condor,” says Lois Grunwald, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife.
The county is working with Salinas Valley cities to create a wind energy ordinance that could research this issue as well as explore a smaller turbine that would require a simple building permit, Planning Manager Taven M. Kinison Brown says.
Wagner says perhaps his 2-year-old winery was a little ahead of the game. Conundrum Winery, an offshoot of Napa-based Caymus Vineyards, which produces 150,000 cases of chardonnay and other white wines a year, was hoping wind would power expansion plans, and would start saving money on turbines after seven years.
“There is a larger issue, and that is our dependency on oil,” Wagner says. “I am all for the condors and trying to grow the population and get them back into the wild. What is more important, condor population growth or pollution? We are almost putting birds ahead of humans here.”