Ocotillo: the Wind finally blew & unveiled a problem … with raptors

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1Another video of the Ocotillo Wind Farm has just been released by East County Magazine (ECM) and, after two months of waiting, it looked like all the turbines are finally spinning! Miriam Raftery has since informed me this is misleading, “This video was shot when a few turbines were turning slowly. Videos taken most days since then continue to show no wind, many documented with winds on the ground at only about 1 mph or so.” And there is yet another problem. Ocottillo straddles a migration flyway used by golden eagles. Though Pattern Energy installed an avian radar system that is supposed to turn the turbines off when large birds approach, this system clearly was not working when a passing turkey vulture narrowly misses being killed by one turbine’s massive blades.

Golden Eagle, courtesy East County MagazineAccording to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, wind turbines kill almost half a million birds every year. Some believe the number is much higher, somewhere between 13 and 39 million birds. That is actually a small number when compared to the fatalities from smashing into windows, or falling prey to cats, only larger birds – like owls and raptors – do not usually smash into windows. Nor are they intimidated by domestic or feral cats. The victims at wind farms include large numbers of bats, the endangered California Condor and golden eagles. According to a press release from Save the Eagles International, “the population of golden eagles in the Western States is on the decline. Wind farms are the main cause.”

Pattern Energy declined to answer last May, when a reporter from the LA Times asked how effective the system at Ocotillo is, but radar systems similar to the one Pattern is presumably using are supposedly able to detect birds as much as four miles away,  access their altitude, numbers and whether it is necessary to shut the wind turbines down.

Not too long ago Mark Ducamp, the President of Save the Eagles, wrote that “radars are already in operation at several wind farms in the world, and the results as dismal. At the Kenedy Ranch, Texas, one wind farm has officially been estimated to have killed 921 birds and 2,309 bats in a little less than a year, and another one nearby 1,812 birds and 3,087 bats in the same period (3). Real-life figures are likely to be higher, explains the author of the referenced article. He also notes that over one and a half years of operation the radar did not shut down the turbines once: ‘As of the end of 2010, a shutdown had not occurred.”

He also referred to California’s most infamous wind farm, which as far as I know does not use radar, “Who would have thought that the Altamont Pass wind farm would have killed 2,900 golden eagles to date?” (See a video about the decimation of raptors in the Altamont pass, and resulting 2005/06 lawsuit, here.)

The Octotillo’s radar system was clearly not sufficient the day ECM photographer Jim Pelley documented the turkey vulture’s close call. The photo at the top of this article was taken from that video. Pelley’s editor, Miriam Raftery, adds that, “Pattern Energy has not responded to an email requested details on the make and model of its avian radar system, nor to explain why it was not activated when the vulture soared through the blades.”

(Image credit: Jim Pellely & East County Magazine)

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