Berkeley Plans to Accept ‘Free’ Wind Turbine for Marina By Judith Scherr

Friday March 31, 2006

What’s that old saying? There’s no such thing as a free, uh, wind turbine. 

It wasn’t the monetary costs associated with the gratis apparatus that worried City Councilmember Betty Olds at the March 21 meeting when the City Council faced the question of accepting the turbine. Olds’ concern was that, as has happened at the Altamont Pass wind farm in southeastern Alameda County, birds would be killed by the turbine’s whizzing blades. 

Moreover, Olds was afraid that by installing the electricity-generating equipment as a demonstration project at the Marina, the city would be promoting wind turbines, which would send the wrong message to the public.  

So Olds added a stipulation to which the council agreed: before accepting the Southwest Wind Power turbine, the Golden Gate Audubon Society would have to give its O.K. to the project. It did so on Wednesday, with a caveat—GGAS asked the city to monitor the turbine and to remove it if it killed birds. 

“We can’t be so scared by the technology that we don’t try,” said Patty Donald, coordinator of the Shorebird Nature Center at the Marina, where the turbine will stand. Donald is very enthusiastic about the project, because the wind turbine will add to the other “green” energy and building materials showcased at the center, which include solar electricity, radiant heating, natural linoleum floors, sustainable harvested wood and recycled glass countertops.  

“If it was chopping up birds—then we’d take it out,” Donald said. 

In confirming that the Audubon Society had given its O.K. and that the city would accept the turbine, Alice La Pierre, the city’s energy analyst, underscored that if birds were killed, the turbine would be removed. 

As for monetary costs, the city pays the piper—initially. The Southwest Wind Power turbine, valued at $5,500 retail, has been offered to the city without cost in exchange for the manufacturer running tests on the equipment. All Berkeley has to do is pay the $12,000 installation costs. The city will recuperate these funds over about 11 years. The turbine is expected to produce 7,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, a savings of about $1,100 every year.  

Southwest Wind Power marketing director Miriam Robbins said the city and SWP signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the wind turbine and declined to talk about the agreement. La Pierre said it had to do with the city not disclosing information about the company’s proprietary equipment. 

After the council meeting, Samantha Murray, conservation director for the Audubon Society, visited the proposed site near the Marina’s nature center and Adventure Playground. 

“Of course we’re very sympathetic with pursuing reusable energy,” Murray said. At the same time she said she is acutely aware of the avian deaths at Altamont Pass. She said she would caution against siting the turbine on a flight corridor.  

Donald said she’s been observing the site for 20 years and it isn’t on a migratory path for birds. Moreover, the proposed turbine would be 40 feet high. 

“Birds don’t migrate at 40 feet,” she said. 

The bad rap for wind turbines comes from the experience at Altamont Pass, where, according to a Southwest Wind Power report, there are more than 6,500 turbines sited along a migratory route for birds.  

At Altamont Pass there have been more birds of prey killed than at any other wind facility in North America, according to the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. 

“Research by raptor experts for the California Energy Commission indicates that each year, Altamont Pass wind turbines kill an estimated 881 to 1,300 birds of prey, including more than 75 golden eagles, several hundred red-tailed hawks, several hundred burrowing owls, and hundreds of additional raptors including American kestrels, great horned owls, ferruginous hawks, and barn owls,” according to the center’s website.  

While La Pierre pointed out that two local owners of windmills say they have never had a bird killed, Murray of the Audubon Society said one cannot assume that birds haven’t been killed, just because the remains of dead birds haven’t been seen.  

Before giving its O.K., the Audubon Society consulted experts in the field, according to La Pierre. With the organization’s blessing, the city does not need further council approvals to move ahead with installation of the wind turbine.  

“The Audubon Society wants us to monitor the project and we will,” La Pierre said.