Renewable Energy Catches on in Red America
On a crisp, cloudless morning in November 2002, Susan Hansen stood atop California's Cache Peak clutching a satchel containing the ashes of her husband, Homer. Susan, now 75, had reached the summit on a rock-strewn trail, climbing for an hour through scrub oak, bull pine, and juniper. The 6,676-foot-high Cache Peak, which protrudes from the Tehachapi Range about 40 miles east of Bakersfield, is situated almost wholly within the Hansen ranch.
Susan's in-laws are also buried on the mountain. In 1946 they purchased the property -- more than 50 square miles -- from the Southern Pacific Railroad. "The first one up was my father-in-law," Susan tells me when I visit her in December. "It took 12 people to carry his casket to the top, and we had to dynamite a hole in the rock for the grave." After that fiasco, the family decided cremation would be easier. Once her in-laws had passed away, the Hansens divided up the property and sold their shares, except for Susan and Homer, who kept an 11,000-acre plot. There they started a cow-calf operation that at its peak had 1,000 head of cattle.
Susan recounts the story as we stand on a natural terrace below Cache Peak in Jawbone Canyon, an arid moonscape at the eastern edge of Kern County. With one notable difference, the clear and cool weather is identical to what it was on the day she scaled the peak to scatter her husband's ashes. "Normally it's windy, very windy," she says. Hot updrafts rising from the sun-baked Mojave Desert create low pressure at the surface, which sucks in cold, dense air from the Pacific Ocean to fill the void. This thermal effect is one of the most ferocious wind machines on earth.
"In the 1980s, our interest rates went to 24 percent and the bank started looking [to foreclose on] our land," Susan recalls. "So my husband started searching for ways to make the property earn its keep, and that's when he taught himself about wind power." There were lots of ups and downs along the way -- inadequate transmission lines, a burst of new deals with the dot-com boom, another slowdown when that bubble burst -- but eventually Homer forged a partnership with a company called Zilkha (now Horizon Wind Energy). "He signed the option three days before he died," she says. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power later took over the lease and the project went online last year with 80 turbines, each generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity.
I first heard about the Hansen ranch from Lorelei Oviatt, the special projects division chief for the Kern County planning department. At 8,202 square miles, Kern, with a population of 800,458, is roughly the size of New Jersey and encompasses several disparate ecosystems -- the Central Valley, Sierra Nevada, and Mojave Desert. Oviatt wanted me to see firsthand one of her county's celebrated successes: a 120-megawatt wind farm that enriched its landowner (Susan won't say exactly how much she earns but made it clear that her family would never have to worry about money) while helping bring new jobs to a region that has a 15.1 percent unemployment rate. Oil, agriculture, and aerospace have been the economic mainstays in Kern for nearly a century. Petroleum still chugs along. But cheap imported produce has decimated local agriculture; severe water shortages are shuttering what farms remain; the once-thriving dairy industry struggles to profit; and the military is downsizing (the advanced F-22 and F-35 fighters are tested at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force Base, both of which spill into the county, but President Obama has slashed these programs).
To combat the downturn, Oviatt has been on a mission to attract renewable investment and transform Kern into what she calls "ground zero" for green energy. Doing so means fostering alliances between competing interests, and this, she admits, can be a nightmare. While the Hansen project was being put together, environmentalists complained it would disrupt wildlife habitats, specifically those of the Mojave ground squirrel and the desert tortoise. Indians feared desecration of sacred burial sites. Neighbors complained that the soaring towers would spoil alpine views. The U.S. Department of Defense claimed that the turbines would be a hazard to pilots who fly high-speed maneuvers in the area, often at near-ground level. The "bird people," as Susan calls them, filed suit, arguing that spinning rotor blades are an avian hazard. One of their concerns was that the Sierra Nevada transects a major flyway, so turbines pose a threat to migratory species. Another concern is the endangered California condor, although Oviatt says no report exists of the condor ever being killed or maimed by a wind turbine.
Oviatt ultimately got the project approved. But if you think she did it to save the planet, you'd be only partly correct. She concedes that promoting green power is terrific, and AB-32, California's aggressive legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, is fueling frenzied interest in wind and solar. But she considers her pursuit of renewable energy a civic duty to help Kern prosper in the long term. "This is a red, conservative-based county," she says. "We are not Berkeley. We are embracing renewables because they're practical." What is essential to Oviatt -- and to her bosses, the five elected members of the county board of supervisors -- is that renewable energy investments create jobs and boost tax revenue. If the icing is green, she says, well, all the better.
Despite Kern's political conservatism, county planners have largely escaped a knee-jerk backlash against anything green by pushing for projects on private property rather than on public lands. Where landowners have raised objections, they tend to be very specific and are usually couched in terms of qualified support. ("Look, don't get me wrong here -- I think this is a good thing; I'm just worried that...")
In Kern, as elsewhere in the United States, most wind and solar resources are located in rural areas, where landowners frequently lean right. Targeting private property, Oviatt says, is an easier sell. Energy projects almost always raise land values and therefore generate more property tax revenue. The developer covers the increased taxes for the landowners and pays them annual royalties based on how much energy their properties produce. Some landowners also get signing bonuses, leasing income, or one-time cash settlements if they sell their property outright. At the same time, the projects don't rile those who covet public lands -- not just conservationists, but also hunters, anglers, off-roaders, and mining and military interests. "Here, if you put an environmentalist label on something," says Oviatt, "you can actually damage the idea."