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Tehachapi area braces for wind energy expansion

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Kern County, CA, surrounding Bakersfield and straddling the mountains and the Mojave desert, is home to one of the more iconic wind farms of the first round of the US wind industry.  Just east of Tehachapi, over 5000 turbines were built during the 1980s and ’90s.

Tehachapi

Now, faced with a slew of new wind projects, the Kern County Planning Department is working double-time to find a way to manage the future build-out of wind (and solar) development in the region.  This week, county planners began hosting meetings at which the latest planning maps are being presented for public comment.  Fourteen new wind farms have already gained approval for construction within the proposed Wind Inclusion Areas, with three others awaiting permits.  

Teh new plansOn the map to the left, yellow represents the existing development pictured above, and the other colors each represent a new development. For those living within this roughly 11 x 17 mile Wind Inclusion Area, the prospect is daunting.  April Biglay, a local activist who’s been encouraging the county to proceed with caution, attended the first meeting, and said, “I think it’s bittersweet. I think the county is making a huge effort to get under control the production of wind energy. At least the studies are in. At least they are looking at these areas, I mean it’s better than nothing.” 

Some landowners who live outside the designated wind zones are frustrated that the county may, in effect, preclude future wind development outside of areas where it’s already well-established.  Phil Wyman, one such landowner, says, “The only difference between us and the people who got permitted is that they did it yesterday and we want to do it today or tomorrow.”

KernCounty

Looking at the big picture, the Wind Inclusion Zones (the lighter areas on the map to the right) represent a small portion of the sprawling county, though arguably a substantial portion of the transition zone between the mountains and desert.  A much larger “Proposed Kern County Wind Resource Area” was released in draft form at similar meetings late last year; the new maps retain the southern portion of that Resource Area, but greatly reduce the northern extent of wind development.

Kern County is in an especially intense version of the local decisions being faced by communities in many parts of the country.  Local opposition to wind expansion is based on many factors, including dominating the landscape and concerns about wildlife, especially raptors.  For those living in the Inclusion Area, noise is a significant concern; neighbors of current wind projects in the area say that turbines are commonly audible to a mile or more, and under the new proposals, many more people in what has been a quiet, remote landscape will be living within earshot.  

At the same time, military exclusion zones, fire hazard areas, existing parks and national monuments, and other factors combine to limit wind and solar development to a small portion of the area in which they might otherwise make economic or energy-production sense (ie areas of reliably high winds or bright sun).  There are no easy answers to questions about how best to balance energy production against local impacts; Kern County offers an especially vivid sense of the tensions involved, with its creation of virtual sacrifice zones that, while not huge in the grand scheme, are large enough to impact many residents.

For more info:
Kern County powerpoint presentation (pdf version)
Inclusion/Exclusion zone detail map
Full county map 
Two local environmental groups fighting wind expansion 
A local economic development group supporting renewable energy projects

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