Altamont Pass: What’s the Story With Those Windmills?

Monopole turbines at Altamont Pass, 2008. Photo by David J Laporte.
Monopole turbines at Altamont Pass, 2008. Photo: David J Laporte

I’m sure many Californians have marveled at the thousands of wind turbines spinning atop the golden hillsides along Highway 580 between eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties. I remember looking out the window as a child in awe of the behemoths’ slowly turning blades, thinking they belonged to a futuristic era run by robots. Little did I know, the turbines of Altamont Pass comprise the oldest wind farm in the United States and once produced half of the world’s wind-generated electricity.

The Town of Altamont

Before Altamont Pass was realized as a prime location for wind turbines, a few homesteaders in the late 1800s tried to set down roots on the windy hillsides. The town of Altamont came to life in 1868 along with the Central Pacific Railroad. Settlers of Altamont had unfounded hopes of transforming the landscape into rolling fields of productive crops. The unrelenting winds, however, proved too strong and Altamont was mostly abandoned by 1939.

Ranchers took the place of these first settlers, grazing cattle on the windy hillsides. Some ranchers still live on the windswept lands today, bolstering their slim ranching profits with money made from harnessing the wind.

Altamont Pass, 2008. Photo by David J Laporte.
Altamont Pass, 2008. Photo: David J Laporte

The Wind Rush of the 1980s

After the 1973 oil crisis, the U.S. government began offering tax incentives for renewable sources of energy. With a new bill in 1979 that provided a 15 percent tax credit for wind projects, wind farms became a very profitable investment. This triggered an era called the ‘Wind Rush’ and visionary entrepreneurs began frantically scouting out the windiest sites. When one of these entrepreneurs, Alvin Duskin, was told by a state meteorologist of the unceasing winds of Altamont Pass, he quickly went to work getting investors and the site’s ranchers on board. In 1981, it was the first wind farm in the United States to start spinning its blades. Four years later 1,600 turbines harnessed the wind on Altamont Pass.

The big profits ended in 1986 when both state and federal credits were repealed. Many wind farmers barely made it through the late 80s and 90s. Things only got worse for Altamont Pass in 1992 when a study by the California Energy Commission revealed that the farm’s turbines killed an estimated 39 golden eagles per year.

Migratory Route Turned Wind Farm

It turns out Altamont Pass is a major migratory route and offers prime hunting grounds for golden eagles, American kestrels, and red-tailed hawks. Further studies have shown that 2 to 4 thousand birds, including the federally protected golden eagle, die each year from colliding with a turbine while flying through Altamont Pass. To add insult to injury, the design of the original 1980s windmills utilized a lattice base that is an attractive resting and nesting site for birds. Although the turbines’ blades appear to move slowly, some reach speeds of up to 179 mph, plenty fast to severely injure or kill a bird (or bat) if they get too close.

Newer monopole turbines tower above the old lattice base turbines from the 1980s, 2008. Photo by David J Laporte.
Newer monopole turbines tower above the old lattice base turbines from the 1980s. Pictured in 2008. Photo: David J Laporte

Quality Over Quantity: New Turbines at Altamont Pass

Today, the Altamont Pass Wind Farm is one of three major wind resource areas in the state, along with Tehachapi and San Gorgonio. The three regions combined provide 95 percent of the state’s commercial wind-powered electricity. As of 2012, five percent of the state’s power came from wind, and the goal is to ramp that number up to 33 percent by 2020. Altamont Pass is a huge part of this project: At over 4,000 turbines, it has the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world. The problem is, most of these turbines are over three decades old, and relative to their newer counterparts, don’t produce nearly as much power and are a greater threat to wildlife.

Seasonal shutdowns of the turbines help prevent bird fatalities but ‘repowering’ (replacing old, inefficient turbines with newer, safer and higher energy-producing models) will hopefully save more birds when the blades aren’t at rest. You can see these 430-foot turbines towering above the old 80 foot lattice base models. Each new turbine generates as much electricity as 23 of the old towers. The new towers are part of a 2010 agreement made between environmental groups, the state and NextEra Energy Resources (a Florida-based energy company with wind projects nationwide) to decrease the number of bird deaths at Altamont Pass. Not only do these new turbines decrease the concentration of windmills, but the blades rotate more slowly and are much quieter.

Initial studies conducted for the 2010 agreement showed a 54 percent decrease in raptor fatalities and 66 percent decrease in fatalities for all birds. More recent studies, however, are showing that the new models kill more birds per individual turbine because they reach into air space used by high-flying raptors and have a much wider rotor span.

Altamont Pass with green hills in 2008. Photo by Fietsbel.
Altamont Pass with green hills in 2008. Photo: Fietsbel

The Future of Wind Farms at Altamont Pass

A company called Ogin has broken away from the standard 18th century windmill design. The spinning rotors of their turbines have a diameter of only 41 feet—the monopole’s is 300!—surrounded by a ring of large flaps called a shroud, meant to prevent birds from flying too close to the deadly blades. These new-age windmills sit much lower to the ground, are much quieter and produce up to 50 percent more energy per turbine. The timeline is unclear, but Altamont Pass plans to replace some of the turbines with the new shrouded design in hopes of protecting both birds and bats while generating more power.

Ideally, because Altamont Pass is a major migratory route and breeding area for raptors, it wouldn’t be a wind farm at all. It’s hard to say what the distant future holds for Altamont Pass. Perhaps centuries from now the turbines will all stand still, artifacts of a bygone era. Wind will be harnessed from rooftops so that wide open spaces can remain just that. As people pass through the golden hills, children will peer out the window and wonder at the immobile robots standing sentinel over the barren landscape, and golden eagles will soar unscathed past the motionless blades in the unremitting wind.

Updated August 9, 2016

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Tony

    Excellent article about everything I wanted to know about the turbines, especially why they never seem to turn anymore when l visit the area. Actually, I’m no longer an advocate of large area wind and solar farms. After reading “The Methanol Economy” I believe our future lies there. Combine CO2 with H only waste is water. Much more efficient electrical generation without using vast tracks of land, and killing off wildlife.

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  2. Bob Wallace

    I found a single study –

    “Thousands of older turbines at Altamont Pass have been fast-spinning and low to the ground, while also featuring cage-like lattice towers that were attractive places for birds to land and perch: a bad mix.

    Most of these are being replaced by “monopole” towers, some as high as 500 feet (152 meters). The new towers are meant to be safer for wildlife, but a recent study suggests that may not be the case. Looking at hundreds of published reports on bird deaths at 59 wind farms across the United States, Oklahoma State University ecologist Scott Loss says the shift to the new, monopole designs is no simple fix.

    The larger, more efficient structures appear to kill more birds per turbine than the windmills they’re replacing—between three and eight birds per turbine per year, according to Loss.”

    There’s a problem with data interpretation. The critical metric is not birds killed per turbine but birds killed per GWh of electricity produced.

    The original turbines at Altamont were very small compared to today’s turbines. There are several companies that have turbines at Altamont, let’s look at one (the one I quickly found ;o).

    Wiki –
    ” 100kW Kenetech turbines are being taken down. These are older models with lattice towers. It has been proposed to replace them with 27 turbines with rated capacity of 2.1MW”

    For each “higher turbine” installed 21 “lower turbines” are being removed. (2.1 MW / 100 kW = 21)

    The new, higher turbines would need to kill more than 20x as many birds per tower in order to be equally dangerous for birds. If the lower turbines were killing, on average, 1 bird per year then they were a lot more destructive than the higher turbines that are killing “between three and eight birds per turbine per year.”

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