Bishop BLM Realty Specialist Larry Primosch stands at the proposed site of a 198’ wind-monitoring tower for Antelope Peak Summit. (Photo: Vane)
While a potential wind power project is gone with the EWind, ENEL Green Power, an Italian company, is still studying the feasibility of wind power development in the Eastern Sierra.
Monday night, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Bishop Field Office conducted a scoping meeting in Lee Vining. Residents of Lee Vining and surrounding communities gathered to voice questions and concerns about Enel Green Power’s proposed wind energy monitoring and project area right-of-way application.
Enel, formerly Padoma, proposes to install two wind monitoring (MET) towers, or possibly one MET tower and one SODAR unit, on Antelope Peak and in the saddle above Black Lake west of Benton.
SODAR stands for sonic detection and ranging – it essentially measures wind power, velocity, et. al. using sound.
The MET towers would stand for up to three years collecting data on wind speed, velocity, direction, and humidity. After 27 months, Enel would decide whether to propose a Plan of Development (POD) for a wind generation project, or dismantle their MET towers and search for development options elsewhere.
The MET towers themselves won’t be much of an eyesore. 198 ft tall, eight inches around the top, and anchored by cables, they’ll pale in comparison to the 450-foot tall wind turbines that may follow. Enel has a development claim on some 9,000 acres and could potentially install as many as 30 of these turbines, with bases 300-feet tall, and blades 130-feet long, on the ridge above and in the valley around Black Lake.
Bishop BLM Realty Specialist Larry Primosch guided those gathered at the scoping meeting to view the MET towers and wind turbines as two discrete projects.
Meaning, first things first. BLM must approve Enel’s current Type 2 application as well as an Environmental Assessment. A year later, Enel could submit a Type 3 application, which would require a more thorough EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).
Only then, could turbines be built.
Local resident Liz O’Sullivan said it seemed like “we’re separating things impossible to separate; talking about the visual impact of two towers, but they’re preceding a whole row of towers along the ridge.”
Primosch noted that one of these two MET towers may actually be a 4’ by 6’ SODAR unit, which uses sound frequencies in the air to make its measurements.
The effect on viewsheds was a major concern to those gathered. Bill Crum, who recently purchased property at Sagehand, noted that, “As a property owner with a view of the Antelope Peak tower, my night sky will be significantly different if there’s a light on the tower.”
Enel’s planned 198’ tower conveniently avoids FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) light regulations for towers greater than 200’.
Other attendees voiced environmental concerns. In fact, it was because of environmental impact concerns that EWind recently withdrew its application for four MET towers and a project area of 24,000 acres in the Adobe Valley and Granite Mountain areas. EWind had already submitted a POD to BLM projecting construction of 160 wind turbines. But much of the site was known sage grouse habitat, and after a year and a half of study, EWind investors decided the venture was too risky to proceed.
Enel’s 9,000 acres isn’t part of that sage grouse habitat, but is home to mule deer in winter, as well as a bald eagle nest above Black Lake. During a field trip hosted Saturday by the BLM, Enel Environmental and Permitting Manager Joan Heredia assured the group that Enel would conduct the proper avian, cultural (the region has known Native American archaeological findings) and environmental research for the area. But the fact that the developer will directly fund that research made some field trip participants nervous.
Primosch pointed out that BLM will have input on choices in researchers, and Heredia offered her own reassurance: “I want to be as open and honest in the development process as possible,” she said. “Otherwise it bites you in the ass.”
On Monday night, concerns ran more toward federal ordinance trumping county decisions. Primosch opened the meeting by pointing out, “One of the reasons why we’re here today is in May 2001, the President signed Executive Order 13212 , which states that federal agencies take appropriate actions, to the extent consistent with applicable law, to expedite projects to increase the production, transmission, and conservation of energy.” Primosch also noted that BLM has responsibility under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to respond to a request for a right-of-way on public land as filed under 43 CFR 2800 regulations.
However, Enel plans to develop in a Class III area, which means, according to BLM policy, that while the project “can have a visual impact, and can draw your attention, it’s not supposed to dominate the landscape.”
At the field exam on Saturday, from a distance of 6 miles, none of us could see the 60-foot cell tower at the summit of Antelope Peak. But the visual impact for 30, 450-foot wind turbines might be another story. Even Primosch didn’t deny this Monday night; “If Enel gets to an EIS, I guarantee you they’ll fail as a Class III.”
This statement raised two questions: 1. Why bother at all with the MET towers if the BLM is certain Enel will never be able to develop wind turbines in the proposed area? Primosch had no answer.
2. As Mike O’Sullivan put it, “If Enel were to get to an EIS and a solid project proposal, is federal ordinance going to trump BLM’s decision?” He added, “We’ve seen big solar steamrolling parts of the desert in New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California; does energy policy trump viewshed requirements?”
Primosch gestured to Bishop BLM Field Manager Bernadette Lovato. “Bernadette is the decision maker,” he said. It was Central California District Manager Kathy Hardy who clarified, “the Secretary of the Interior will be the ultimate decision maker on this.” Her subsequent attempt to reassure the crowd that “we could have a whole new administration policy in four or five years” did little to reassure.
“Why did Enel choose a Class III area to develop in at all?” asked one attendee. “I think it’s a calculated risk,” answered Field Manager Lovato.
But the risk is potentially much greater for Benton, Lee Vining and surrounding communities than for Enel. While these communities would get a cut of the 50 MW produced by the turbines, much of that energy would undoubtedly be exported to areas of greater need, like central and coastal California. Which means locals would get some renewable energy, while also feeding the need of residents thousands of miles away, at an unforeseeable cost to their own environment. “They could put these turbines all along the coast of California, but the public outcry would never allow it. So they’re going to try to put this stuff in our neighborhood, where they don’t have to think about it,” said Bill Crum.
Small wonder some residents are looking at renewable energy in the Eastern Sierra as the second coming of the LA Aqueduct.
But as Lee Vining resident Drew Foster pointed out, playing devil’s advocate, “We do need more renewable energy here.” And Sally Miller, Senior Conservation Representative of the Wilderness Society, wondered, “Where’s the yardstick for the greatest good for the greatest number? Is that part of the BLM credo?”
The BLM will be taking comments from the public until July 30, and after that, should BLM accept Enel’s proposal, Enel may install its met towers by as early as the end of summer.
Written comments on issues to be addressed in the environmental assessment for the ENEL proposal can be submitted by email to Lawrence_Primosch@blm.gov. For more information, contact Larry Primosch, Bishop Field Office, 760.872.5031.