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Renewable Energy Catches on in Red America

Lorelei Oviatt
Master Planner - Lorelei Oviatt sees this hillside in Kern County’s Tehachapi Range as a great example of a profitable wind farm.
         
Kern County, California, went Republican by 18 points in the last election. Now it's captivated by wind and solar power. Here's why.

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."

image of Michael Behar
Contributing editor Michael Behar writes about adventure travel, the environment, and innovations in science for magazines such as Outside, Men's Journal, Mother Jones, Popular Science, and Discover. Formerly, he was a senior editor at Wired and the ... READ MORE >

I found this very moving. I feel that it is probably emblematic as well. It has been observed that the idea for a state bank in North Dakota was probably initiated by Democrats, but it ended up being run by Republicans. Dismissing the profound love for place many Republicans have has been made possible by D.C. denizens who do not represent others in the hinterlands. Those who are interested in new ways with less heating, beating, and treating (Janine Benyus, TED) will do well to regard salt-of-the-earth people with respect and care.

The blatant bias toward an industry that will destroy the life work of many naturalist trying to balance human consumption with destruction of habitat is appalling. NRDC has completely lost my support.
Where is the call to protect the wildlife, plants and open space that NRDC and other environmental protection organizations have long supported?
The president may be a Democrat but he is as anti-environment except for the "climate change" bandwagon that so many have attached themselves to. Global climate change should not be fought on the back of habitat that is being plowed under at record pace.
These so-called private lands are not marginal habitat but prime land for wildlife and endemic plants that have no place to go. They race toward extinction as people fight to continue lavish consumptive lifestyles. Knowing CEQA like the back of your hand is not a reason to thwart protections for the environment. Oviatt is not a public servant but a shill for greed in a long line of shills in Kern County.
I am so disappointed.

I found this to be a superb article depicting what someone with a vision to the future can do to both advance a stronger and more sustainable economy, while minimizing the environmental impacts on the region. Kudo's to Lorelei Oviatt - and Susan & Homer Hansen.

The push for "green power" in this manner is another soon to be disaster for the environment. If planners would see the long term distruction industrial solar and wind farm projects cause to the natural surroundings, by displacing animals and plant life out of the area, maybe they would put their education and experience to a better use. The true definition of green is to limit our development footprint. Implement the use of solar on existing roof tops prior to mass excavation in a prestine area. Push and educate people to reduce their consumption and design their homes and businesses to be more efficient. I beleive the supporters of this type of development should be ashamed of what they are allowing. How many thousands of acres of rural habitat are you willing to destroy to further feed mankind's selfish lifestyle in the name of "green"?

The tax payer is already heavily overburdened without having to subsidize the wind industry.

The government’s distortion of the marketplace inevitably causes turbines to be placed in areas where the wind is insufficient to warrant a proper investment. Not only does this attract scams but the ratepayers ultimately end up bankrolling the mess.

The location of the turbines in the article may or may not reasonable, although clearly lucrative for the land owner. However, if the wind business (or any energy business) can not stand on the merits of what they sell, then they should not be allowed to pick the pockets of the citizens.

I can't believe people think this is "a good thing"! These turbines are ruining the Sierra Nevada mountains. This particular project cuts across the Pacific Coast Trail! How lovely! Imagine hiking for hours to reach the top and the vista...Huge windmills YUK!

The article FAILED to mention that environmentalists were NEVER allowed onto the property to conduct surveys, and the Audubon Society estimated that Condors, Owls, raptors and numerous other birds will die as a result of this abomination! The Audubon Society filed suit, but couldn't produce hard evidence as they were shut out!

This area also is home to literally hundreds of endangered plants and animals. LADWP bulldosed hundreds of miles of roads across the land, killing old growth oak trees and other endangered vegetation.

The article also is WRONG about tax revenue: Kern County receives zero money on this project because the City of LA leased the property & municipalities DO NOT PAY PROPERTY TAXES ON IMPROVEMENTS!! (The total lease to be paid to the Hansens over 33 years is $29.5 million!)

Finally, the article is wrong about jobs. The LA Dept of Water is a UNION shop. Any new jobs will go to LA County residents living in nearby Lancaster/Palmdale.