The hilly Altamont Pass region in eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties is home to one of the nation’s oldest wind farms, first developed in the 1970s on land leased from cattle ranchers.
On Thursday, state energy officials, local officials and wind developers from NextEra Energy Resources gathered at the site to celebrate completion of the first phase of NextEra’s massive "repowering" project, which is expected to drastically reduce the number of red-tailed hawks, golden eagles and other raptors killed by turbines each year.
The project, much of it visible from Interstate 580, is radically changing the iconic landscape. At least six miles of overhead electrical lines and about eight miles of road are being removed, returning the land to a more natural state. And scores of antiquated windmills that have lined the hillsides for decades have been removed. In their place stand enormous, state-of-the-art behemoths, their white blades slowly turning in the warm wind.
"When you mention Altamont people think of three things: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and windmills," Ken Alex, a senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, said in reference to the infamous 1969 concert. "Today we’re going to talk about windmills."
NextEra, a Florida-based energy company, owns about half of the wind turbines in the 50,000-acre region known as the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, while the others are owned by a patchwork of other developers. In the next four years, it will replace nearly 2,000 of the 4,000 wind turbines it has at the site, many of which are nearly 30 years old, with about 100 huge state-of-the-art turbines.
The new turbines stand 430 feet tall, or taller than the some coastal redwood trees. For every new turbine installed, 23 of the old ones will be removed — a dramatic drop expected to significantly reduce the number of birds and bats that die in the whirling blades each year.
So far, nearly 400 older turbines have been removed and replaced with 34 new turbines near Vasco Road and the Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Brentwood. The other two phases of the project are scheduled to be completed by 2015. Each of the new turbines, manufactured by Siemens, generates 2.3 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 600 to 700 homes.
"We’re a third of the way there," said Matt Schafer, NextEra’s vice president of business management. "Our goal is to repower all of our assets at the Altamont in the next few years."
Looming over Thursday’s event were concerns about the federal production tax credit for utility-scale wind turbines that is scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. Efforts are under way in Congress to extend it for two more years, but many in the wind industry warn that future projects are already grinding to a halt because the credit is crucial to making wind power cost-competitive with such energy sources as solar and natural gas.
"If the PTC isn’t extended you’ll see very little, if any, development in 2013," said Steve Stengel, director of communications for NextEra. "That is a fact."
President Obama recently visited TPI Composites, an Iowa manufacturer of wind turbine blades, and urged Congress to extend the credit. Iowa gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind power.
In California, the vast majority of wind turbines are clustered in three regions: the Altamont Pass between Livermore and Tracy, Tehachapi near Bakersfield and the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs. Solano County is now home to several wind projects as well.
California currently gets about 5 percent of its electricity from wind power, while most of the rest comes from natural gas, nuclear power and hydropower. The state has set an ambitious goal of getting 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, and utilities have signed several renewable energy contracts with developers.
PG&E, which currently gets about 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, is well on its way to meeting the new goal. About 25 percent of the utility’s renewable energy comes from wind, but that is shrinking as more solar projects come online.
"Solar will be our biggest contributor on our path to get to 33 percent," said Fong Wan, PG&E’s senior vice president for energy procurement. "We have a lot of solar projects in California, but wind will always be a part of the mix."
Wan wore a light blue tie with windmills on it for Thursday’s ribbon-cutting. He recalled driving from New York to California in the 1980s and crossing the Altamont Pass for the first time.
"As I drove through I wondered ‘Why are these old wind turbines here? They don’t even spin, and they fall down,’ " he said.
John Jackson, a local cattle rancher, owns 480 acres in the area and has wind turbines on his property. He’s seen the wind farm change over the years and is a fan of the new turbines.
"I like them," he said. "The old ones would shut down if the winds got too strong, and then they’d fall down and hit the wires and start grass fires. These spin slower than the old ones, and they are very quiet."
NextEra Energy Resources has invested approximately $1.2 billion in wind power and solar energy facilities currently in operation in California.
The company, through its subsidiaries, currently owns and operates nearly 850 MWs of wind in California, or enough wind to power more than 200,000 homes. NextEra Energy Resources also co-owns and operates 310 MWs of solar power in the Mojave Desert.
NextEra Energy Resources, LLC (together with affiliated entities, "NextEra Energy Resources"), is a clean energy leader and is one of the largest competitive energy suppliers in North America, operating in 22 states and Canada as of year-end 2011.
NextEra Energy Resources is the largest generator in the United States of renewable energy from the wind and sun, owning and operating approximately 8,569 megawatts of wind and 158 megawatts of solar power generation at the end of 2011.
The business operates clean, emissions-free nuclear power generation facilities in New Hampshire, Iowa and Wisconsin as part of the NextEra Energy nuclear fleet, which has the third largest number of commercial nuclear power units in the United States. NextEra Energy Resources is a subsidiary of Juno Beach, Fla.-based NextEra Energy, Inc. (NYSE: NEE).