In the 1980s, California was a wind energy superpower — No. 1 not just in the United States, but also in the world.
As scores of huge turbines appeared in places like the Altamont Pass east of San Francisco and San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, a name was coined: The Great California Wind Rush.
That era is over. While wind and solar are lumped together in almost every discussion of California’s energy future, wind is lagging, and political resistance is one of the reasons.
Several counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego, have passed restrictions discouraging or banning development of large-scale commercial winds farms. Naturally, those are the very places most suited to harnessing wind energy.
When weighed against the benefits of switching to renewable energy, some of the reasons for banning wind turbines are ridiculously flimsy, unreasonable and selfish.
Windmills have been blamed for ruining views; disturbing desert habitat; eating up too much rural land; killing bats and birds (never mind that fossil fuels kill far more birds, as do cats); and creating a nuisance for nearby residents with noise and blinking lights.
Even President Trump has weighed in on the evils of wind turbines; before he became president, he famously opposed the installation of wind turbines off the coast of his golf course in Scotland.
“I want to see the ocean, I do not want to see windmills,” he harrumphed at the time.
Trump’s campaign against the windmills was ultimately unsuccessful.
That hasn’t been the case in California; as a result of restrictions, onshore wind farm developers “have packed up and left,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.
Texas now produces four times as much wind energy as California, which has fallen to No. 4 in the United States — not a promising trend, given the state’s ambitious goal of switching to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
New opportunities for wind energy have surfaced offshore, but those, too, face hurdles.
Take the floating wind farm proposed off the coast of Morro Bay, in San Luis Obispo County. If approved, the development would generate 1,000 megawatts — enough to power 300,000 homes.
A Facebook group, Stop the Morro Bay Offshore Wind Farm, cites an array of concerns, including bird kills, dangers to migrating whales, an increase in marine traffic, effects of turbine vibrations on marine life, and obstruction of ocean views. Although the turbines would be sited more than 30 miles offshore, opponents say they could still be visible, especially at night.
“Turning our coastline into a nighttime Christmas light brigade is reason enough to prevent this atrocity from happening! STOP THE MADNESS!!!” wrote one opponent.
Even the head of Hearst Corp., one of the largest landowners in the region, worries that turbines could spoil the view from the iconic Hearst Castle.
“When anybody walks into any room facing west in the Castle, they’ll walk by all the artifacts, all the artworks,” Stephen Hearst told a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. “They walk to the window and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’
It’s doubtful that visitors to Hearst Castle would be distracted by wind turbines far off shore.
If they are, so what? Having a view “disrupted” by windmills is a miniscule price to pay when weighed against the benefits of stopping or at least slowing the devastating, worldwide effects of climate change.
We already are seeing those: deadly wildfires, shrinking glaciers, loss of land to rising seas, destruction of coral reefs, disruption of food supplies.
And we’re not going to do everything in our power to prevent that, in order to safeguard our precious views?
That’s almost as bad as refusing to acknowledge that climate change is real. It’s merely a more subtle form of denial – an insistence that we still have the luxury of allowing relatively minor annoyances derail plans to transition away from coal and oil and natural gas.
We don’t. It’s time to wake up and realize that if we are going to transition to 100 percent renewables, have to accept that solar panels and wind turbines will be part of our landscape.
At the local level, counties that have closed their doors to wind energy need to rethink their policies.
And at the state level, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and our state lawmakers must work not only on removing impediments to wind energy, but also on incentivizing its development.