Construction starts in September but opposition group fights on
By Rob Nikolewski | 3:46 p.m. July 26, 2016
Developers of the Tule Wind Project in San Diego’s East County expect to start construction in September. Pictured is the Manzana wind farm, a 189-megawatt project in Kern County, operated by Avangrid Renewables, which will run the Tule project. — Photo from Avangrid Renewables
It’s taken 12 years but the Tule Wind Project that is slated to eventually generate 201 megawatts of power from a 12,000-acre site in San Diego’s East County is on the threshold of getting built.
“We are very excited that we are finally here,” said Harley McDonald, senior business developer for Avangrid Renewables, the company in charge of the project.
But a group opposed to the wind farm — predicting the project’s turbines will kill migratory birds such as golden eagles and pointing at what it says are contradictory rulings in two federal court cases — won’t give up the fight.
Renewable energy “needs to be done thoughtfully and it needs to be done right,” said April Rose Sommer, executive director of the Protect our Communities Foundation (POC). “And this project is the wrong place and it’s also the wrong procedure.”
Most of the Tule Wind Project is located on federal land.
Last month, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with a U.S. District Court’s ruling that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has adequately investigated the impacts of the Tule Wind Project when it granted developers a right-of-way.
That ruling gave the green light to the first phase of the Tule wind farm, which will produce 132 megawatts of electricity from 57 turbines located in the McCain Valley in East County, some 70 miles from San Diego.
Officials at Avangrid Renewables — which recently changed its name from Iberdrola Renewables — expect construction on what they are calling “Tule I” starting in September and are targeting a September 2017 start-up date.
Southern California Edison last year signed a 15-year power purchase agreement for Tule I.
The second part of the project that is expected to generate 69 megawatts of power is slated to be completed in 2018 or 2019. Avangrid officials say they don’t yet know how many turbines will be erected at the smaller Tule II site.
“I think East County has been hungry for economic development and this is a great example of what you can do when work with the community,” said Art Sasse, director of communications and brand for Avangrid Renewables.
But despite losing twice in court, POC last week filed a petition, calling for an “en banc” hearing by the Ninth Circuit, in the hopes of getting the three-judge panel’s ruling overturned.
In the case of the Ninth Circuit, which is made up of 20 active judges, an en banc review is usually comprised of a panel made up of 10 randomly selected judges plus the circuit’s chief judge.
“If we give up the fight this project is going to be built there’s going to be really high (bird) mortality,” said Sommer.
Avangrid officials insist the project is safe for birds and say the POC’s petition will not interrupt the project’s construction schedule.
“We think this action is frivolous and without merit,” Sasse said.
“The wind turbines are well-sited,” McDonald said. “We specifically chose this location not only for the wind resource and because it’s close to the grid but also because it has very few environmental impacts.”
The turbines’ towers will be about 262-feet high and the power generated will connect to a substation in the nearby town of Boulevard that is operated by San Diego Gas & Electric.
POC’s argument for an en banc hearing largely hinges on a case on the other end of the country.
The Washington D.C. Court of Appeals earlier this month acknowledged that the Cape Wind Project off the coast of Cape Cod required a permit in accord with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
But the panel in the Ninth Circuit ruling rejected the POC’s argument that the Tule project would be unlawful without the same permit.
“The government has taken contradictory positions,” Sommer said. “We’re told there’s a good chance (when) the entire en banc is able to look at this, they will see this with clearer eyes than the select panel of judges that made the wrong decision.”
The project has been debated since it was put on the drawing board 12 years ago.
Avangrid contends more people in the community support the Tule wind farm than oppose it and says the project is crucial in helping California meet its renewable energy mandates.
“We’re pretty proud of our legacy of caring for wildlife and habitat,” Sasse said. “We take that aspect extremely seriously and I think those who truly are concerned about the avian population understand that climate change is the biggest threat to wildlife and to birds.”
Sasse estimated the power generated by the Tule project is the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road.
POC officials say they don’t have a timetable for when the Ninth Circuit will decide to accept the en banc petition or not. What will they do if they get turned down?
“When you’ve got two contradictory decisions from two different circuits, that’s the perfect set up for taking a case to the United States Supreme Court, but I can’t say at this point that is something we’re looking to do,” Sommer said. “This is not the last battle for the wildlife in the San Diego area that we’ll be fighting.”
While the Tule I project is fully permitted, the Tule II project involves property on state land and the State Lands Commission has a hearing scheduled in October regarding the site.
Avangrid officials say about 300 jobs will be created to construct the project and about 10 to 12 permanent jobs will be created when the project is up and running.
“I think we need every type of renewable energy we can get out there,” McDonald said.
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