PLEASANTON -- A wind turbine project slated for the Altamont Pass cleared a major hurdle Thursday, paving the way for a real-world test of a new "shrouded" windmill designed to be less lethal to birds and bats.
The three-member East County Board of Zoning Adjustments unanimously approved a conditional use permit for Ogin Inc. to build the first phase of 40 shrouded turbines in the Altamont Wind Resource Area east of Livermore. The experiment will gauge the impact of the wind technology on four raptor species -- the golden eagle, burrowing owl, American kestrel and red-tailed hawk -- over the course of at least a year.
"It was important that we do our homework," said board chairman Jon Harvey. "It's an experiment by which any project that follows this will be a precedent, for better or worse -- and probably the better."
Barring an appeal to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, the Sand Hill project's four-megawatt initial construction phase could break ground as early as this summer, the first repower of turbines on the Altamont Pass since a 2005 settlement agreement among wind energy companies, environmental groups and the county.
"It's groundbreaking in that it is a repower with a new technology," said Sandra Rivera, the county's assistant planning director. "It has the potential for providing more information on efficient wind technology with less impact to birds than the technology there now."
Ogin will replace 73 conventional windmills with the shrouded turbines, which have two concentric covers around the blades to make them, in theory, less accessible to approaching birds and bats.
The company chose the Altamont Pass for the experiment because it's one of the world's most studied areas for impacts and also among the most deadly -- thousands of birds die from collisions with windmill blades every year.
"From a study point of view, it's perfect," said independent researcher Shawn Smallwood, who has been counting fatalities for Ogin since 2012. "That corridor is the worst in the Altamont for killing birds."
An initial mortality study will conclude in 2015 and will be extended if the turbines prove safer.
Ogin has plans to install 330 more shrouded turbines in the future, depending on results and a peer review of the data collected from the study, which was approved by the Altamont Scientific Review Committee.
The project has the support of Audubon California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. Ogin has said they won't move ahead with further construction phases if the turbines aren't effective in reducing fatalities.
"In order to gain an acceptance of expanded wind energy ... we need innovative solutions," said Ogin's director of business development, Peter Pawlowski. "Our turbine is part of that solution."
A workshop to discuss a Altamont-wide environmental impact report will be held June 26 at a yet-to-be-determined location.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.