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Not a Green Giant, Wind Energy Plays Big Role Locally

San Diego County may never have the dramatic, large-scale wind farms seen in the mountain passes near Bakersfield or Tracy, said Michael Picker, senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown for renewable energy facilities. That being said, there is still some opportunity to convert wind into electricity in eastern San Diego County and western Imperial County.

There may even be an opportunity to generate offshore — though it would be a long shot.

Picker discussed local potential and statewide perspective during remarks at the inaugural San Diego Wind Energy Symposium held June 14 at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. CleanTech San Diego, a nonprofit trade group, organized the event.

San Diego already has a wind energy project in its backyard, on the Campo Indian Reservation in the eastern portion of the county. The Kumeyaay Wind Farm consists of 25 turbines able to produce 50 megawatts.

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A larger project, dubbed Shu’luuk Wind, is planned for the same reservation and is undergoing environmental review. Campo’s partner in its newest venture is Chicago-based Invenergy. The new wind project would produce 160 megawatts, or enough electricity for 40,000 homes, backers say. If approved, the wind farm will create 150 temporary construction jobs, project proponents say.

Further along in the environmental review process is the Tule Wind Energy project in eastern San Diego County, near Boulevard. The project would contain as many as 134 turbines, producing 200 megawatts. The northernmost turbines would sit on the Ewiiaapaayp Indian Reservation. The project’s draft environmental impact statement says the project would contain a combination of 1.5 megawatt and 3 megawatt turbines perched as high as 492 feet. Pacific Wind Development, a subsidiary of Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables Inc., is behind the project.

Meeting the Goal

California has set a goal of creating 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The goal looks achievable, Picker said, adding that some want to increase the threshold to 40 percent.

“Clearly wind is going to provide a significant piece of that,” said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego.

San Diego is home to a number of wind energy companies, said Lisa Bicker, president and chief executive officer of CleanTech San Diego, in opening remarks to the conference. Some 41 companies are involved in aspects of the industry from project design and finance to manufacturing, energy production and distribution, said CleanTech Vice President Jason Anderson following the conference. Those companies could serve both large-scale and small-scale wind producers, Bicker said.

Whether San Diego could take hold as a wind energy manufacturing center, however, is questionable. Economist Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, reminded listeners at the symposium that California is not friendly to manufacturing, with the state’s energy costs, permitting issues and labor laws.

A representative from GE Energy, Marc Peterson, noted the conglomerate is making wind energy equipment at Tehachapi, near Bakersfield.

As for the market for clean energy?

Bruvold said that consumers may be more inclined to buy electricity from natural gas burning plants rather than windmills if the former is 25 percent cheaper. “Price will be an issue,” he said.

Wind energy, however, would be cheaper than coal power plants with improved emissions, Peterson said. “Old coal is cheap. New coal is more expensive than wind,” he said.

“It can’t be all about gas,” Peterson went on to say. “You do need some diversification in your power generating portfolio.”

Staying on Land

Picker, the governor’s adviser, offered an update on renewable projects up and down the state during his presentation. He noted some of the greatest concentration of wind is offshore — though he said that intuition tells him Californians will not likely see wind turbines planted in deep water off the coast.

The “good spots” for wind energy in California have already been taken, Picker said. What energy producers may need to do now is upgrade antiquated turbines in the Coachella Valley or in eastern Bay Area counties with more efficient models.

Wind farms typically need a lot of land. Picker said a natural gas powered plant generating 200 megawatts needs 30 acres, whereas a wind farm generating the same amount of electricity might need some 3,000 to 6,000 acres.

Many people think wind turbines make a beautiful landscape look ugly, and there seems to be no getting around that.

Wind turbines will always have visual impacts, Picker said.

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