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November 19, 2021

From the CEO’s Desk Newsletter

Predicting and reducing disconnections

Solving Wind Energy in Altamont Pass

A new wind farm at Altamont Pass will see 23 modern turbines replacing 569 obsolete turbines from the 1980s. The project will produce more energy with much less danger to birds.

Dedication day at the Summit Wind ribbon-cutting ceremony, September 24, 2021. Clockwise, from left: Scott Haggerty; construction; Nick Chaset and daughter; EBCE board, senior staff and VIPs cut the ribbon.

Altamont Pass, the global birthplace of wind energy, is being reborn. Thanks to a contract with EBCE, a new 23-turbine wind farm is up and running in Alameda County, providing local jobs and economic development in our very own backyard, and power to 47,000 customers.

The project will provide about 3 percent of EBCE’s electricity supply, helping move toward the objective of 100 percent clean power by 2030, adopted by the EBCE board in 2020. Construction involved a total of 115,000 hours of work from union members from the Alameda Building Trades Council.

The replacement of 569 old ‘80s-era turbines with only 23 modern machines from GE will help bring an end to a long and contentious history that made the Pass notorious for killing birds, while producing more energy.


Altamont Pass, in the hills west of Livermore, is the site of the infamous Rolling Stones concert in 1969, and well known as the pathway to the Central Valley on Interstate 580, which carries 160,000 vehicles per day.

The Pass also holds a place in the history of energy, as the home to the first big wind farm in the world.

Wind power began in California thanks to former California governor Jerry Brown, with some help from Jimmy Carter. During his first stint as governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brown’s California Energy Commission did the fundamental analysis that showed mountain passes like Altamont could be viable for wind farms.

A 1978 federal law, the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, or PURPA, required utilities to buy power from independent producers at the same price it would have cost the utilities to generate it, known as the “avoided cost.” At the time, with high inflation rates, oil and natural gas shortages, and the construction of expensive nuclear power plants, the avoided cost was quite high.

High avoided cost payments, plus a 25 percent federal tax credit for wind power, doubled by California, launched a “wind rush.” Developers installed 17,000 wind turbines between 1981 and 1987 in three main California passes. All of these turbines were small by modern standards, most with output of 100 kilowatts or less.

Meanwhile, federal R&D on wind energy, managed by NASA, focused on large turbines from traditional aerospace manufacturers, like Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Grumman. NASA spent three-fourths of its wind research funds, around $350 million between 1974 and 1992, on multi-megawatt turbines, none of which made it to market.

On the ground in California, the small machines rapidly evolved. Danish manufacturers, coming from a tradition of farm-based equipment, soon dominated the market with their sturdy designs. Over time, the turbines grew in size, finally reaching the big machines NASA envisioned -- and beyond.

But as tax credits were not renewed in the late ‘80s, and PURPA avoided cost prices fell, wind development in California ground to a halt.


Altamont Pass was the largest of the three passes that were developed, along with Tehachapi, east of Bakersfield, and San Gorgonio Pass, near Palm Springs. Altamont saw over 6200 wind turbines under 26 separate projects, making it the largest wind farm in the world, producing half of all wind power in the world by 1985.

Altamont wind turbines in 2009 (Photo by John K, from Flickr creative commons)

But as a pioneer, Altamont helped surface previously unknown problems. First and foremost was a large number of bird kills.

In a study (PDF) conducted between 1998 and 2003, researchers estimated that the wind farm killed 67 golden eagles, 188 red-tailed hawks, 348 American kestrels, and 440 burrowing owls per year, or a total of 1,127 raptors and 2,710 birds of all kinds.

This made it the most lethal project for birds in the world, and a poster child for the issue of birds and wind power.

“We were still learning,” says James Walker, a member of the California Energy Commission in the 1980s and later CEO of enXco, one of the owners of Altamont Pass wind turbines.

“Today we would do a study to find where the birds and the bats are,” he says. “It simply wasn’t known that we should do that at the time.”

The golden eagles were especially a concern, since they are protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Controversy over bird deaths came to a head in the early 2000s, as a number of the wind projects needed to renew their contracts and operating permits.

When Alameda County renewed the permits in 2005, the Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society took the county to court.

In a 2007 settlement, wind energy companies agreed to shut down half of turbines during the winter migration season, from November to February, and to permanently decommission the highest risk turbines, or about 15 percent of the total.

The longer term solution was to replace the many small turbines with fewer, safer machines. Since new turbines are so much larger and more efficient, a single modern turbine can replace 10 to 15 of the old turbines, while producing the same amount of energy.

New turbines also have few places for raptors to perch, and the blades are much more visible and move at lower revolutions per minute, though the speed at the blade tips can be higher. They can also be sited more carefully, taking into account the extensive research done at Altamont.

This longer term solution has taken a while, as the smaller companies struggled to come up with the financing to replace their wind farms. Thousands of small turbines -- all but 205 -- have been removed in the Pass, replaced by 195 new ones across six projects, resulting in a net increase in wind power from the more efficient machines.


One of the last to repower is the Summit project. In 2016, developers removed 569 old turbines, dating from the 1980s, and replaced them with 23 new turbines, slightly boosting the energy output.

The new project, dubbed the Scott Haggerty Wind Energy Center in honor of EBCE’s founding board chair, was made possible by a long-term power contract with EBCE.

The power purchase was part of a package of new contracts EBCE has signed in the past two years, along with new solar and battery storage projects. The EBCE board has committed to moving to a 100 percent zero-emission supply by 2030, 15 years faster than required by state law.


For Scott Haggerty, the project was the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. Haggerty spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the wind farm on September 24, where the project was named after him.

“My vision for EBCE was not just to sell energy we got somewhere else but to generate it here in Alameda County,” he said. “We wanted to power Alameda County in a more sustainable way, to make sure we were doing the right thing for our environment and our children. It was also a way for cities to meet their climate action plans.”

The local jobs and economic development were definitely welcome, as was the low-cost power.

“With this project we got 15 years of stable pricing,” he said. “EBCE promises clean energy but also affordable rates. This meets both of those goals.”

Haggerty served on the Alameda County Board from 1997 to 2020, so he was present for most of the repowering process, which he calls “arduous.”

“The old wind farms were never one of my favorite things,” he says. “It didn’t really look like Holland out there, like with the old Dutch windmills. That's why I was excited to repower, since we replaced so many old ones with just a few new ones. I think it should help solve the bird problem, since there are so many fewer turbines and they spin at a lower speed.”

“It’s a tremendous honor to have it named after me,” he said. “But we still have a lot of work to do to harness power in Alameda County for Alameda County.”