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Turbines fan debate over wind energy

Plan to erect windmills near national monument spurs outcry.

March 25, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

In a blustery stretch of desert two hours east of Los Angeles, where many of the world's first power-producing windmills were built, a plan for more turbines has triggered a backlash that echoes a national debate over the merits of wind energy.

A proposal to build about 50 windmills next to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument has aroused passions in a region already dotted with 3,000 windmills, with opponents charging that the wind energy industry has neither delivered the promised power nor spared the environment.

The industry, which was born in California, now has projects in 40 states and $8 billion in investments over the last two years, according to the American Wind Energy Assn.

Supporters say wind power has come of age and will help slow global warming, while critics contend that it has delivered only a quarter of its promised energy, proved lethal to wildlife and, in the view of many residents, blighted the landscape.

Around the country, Internet blogs and anti-wind energy websites hum with angry postings about projects on picturesque ridgelines, seascapes and farmlands from New England to Texas.

Politicians and celebrities have weighed in. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his Nantucket Island neighbors have so far successfully fought installation of offshore turbines.

Their opposition, in turn, has prompted criticism that rich liberals are all for alternative power providing it doesn't mar their views.

In his San Gorgonio Pass community above the 10 Freeway, homeowner Les Starks has led the local opposition.

"They're going to take a national monument ... and turn it into an industrial slum," Starks shouted, his voice nearly drowned by blustery gusts as he eyed the stark mountain front soaring above Palm Springs, then zeroed in on a bony ridge 4,000 feet up.

"They want to bulldoze that mesa, put in these enormous wind turbines ... and make lots and lots of money."

Steve Christensen, owner of the mesa where the windmills would be erected, said all he wants to do is produce clean electricity in a region already dotted with windmills.

"We've got windmills to the north of us, windmills to the east and west of us, windmills everywhere but to the south," he said. "Why are they picking us out?"

Christensen, a civil engineer from Cypress, Texas, said his father bought the land half a century before Congress designated the surrounding slopes as a national monument. He said residential or commercial development on the squall-scoured mesa would be impossible.

"If you had a house or car or anything on there it would literally strip the paint off," he said.

San Gorgonio Pass is one of the windiest spots in North America, according to federal researchers.

The 3,000 existing turbines produce enough energy to power almost 25,000 homes for a year, said California Energy Commission spokeswoman Amy Morgan. But that is a fraction of their advertised capacity.

Although politicians and environmentalists concede that there are drawbacks to wind energy, most argue that the fallout from the turbines is minor compared with the global harm threatened by burning fossil fuels.

"Alternative energy is the policy of the U.S. government, the state of California and this county," said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, who is considering four new projects, including Christensen's.

"I sort of like my air-conditioner to keep running during the summer." And, he added, "These wind farms create a huge tax base."

Wind energy companies will pay $3.8 million in state and local business taxes this year, said Riverside County's chief deputy assessor, Michael Beaman, and more in property taxes.

According to public records, renewable energy companies -- including wind, solar and geothermal -- have received $93.8 million in subsidies from California ratepayers.

At the federal level, energy companies also receive generous tax write-offs, and production subsidies absorb start-up costs of windmills -- new ones can cost $1.2 million apiece -- and help reduce taxes on profits from traditional power sources.

Advocates say that wind companies receive a fraction of the billions given to coal and oil companies, and that they are vital to an industry with high infrastructure costs that emits no greenhouse gases and uses a free, readily available power source.

"The private sector does this stuff for money. This is America," said John White, a longtime environmentalist who heads a nonprofit consortium of environmental groups and renewable energy companies.

Critics, however, argue that wind projects subsidized with public funds deliver a fraction of the promised power.

For example, in 2003, San Gorgonio wind farms boasted of 413 megawatts of capacity, but actually produced a quarter of that electricity.

Advocates concede that turbines have produced full power just 10% of the time, but said newer machines provide some power 60% of the time. Today, wind energy provides less than 1% of the nation's power.

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