Wind energy is being unfairly held back in California

Asim Tahir, left, and Meghan Casserly with Google stand next to a wind turbine in Altamont Pass near Livermore. Google has agreed to buy power from the wind farm.
Asim Tahir, left, and Meghan Casserly with Google stand next to a wind turbine in Altamont Pass near Livermore. Google has agreed to buy power from the wind farm. Bay Area News Group

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law California’s new 50-percent-by-2030 renewable energy standard amid deserved fanfare.

But far less attention has been paid to a brewing contradiction: Wind energy projects are being banned or severely restricted in several California counties and, more significantly, across vast federal lands in the state. These restrictions threaten the ability to achieve California’s climate-change goals.

Wind power has a positive track record in California: Alameda, Contra Costa, Kern, Riverside, Solano and other counties host some 6,000 megawatts of wind turbine capacity that now supply 6.5 percent of the state’s homegrown electricity.

These wind projects also help keep ranches and farms economically viable, plus created thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in property tax revenues every year. And, of course, wind energy emits no pollution and uses no water.

Despite these benefits, over the past two years sweeping restrictions have been adopted or are slated for adoption by Los Angeles, San Diego and Solano counties in rural areas hosting some of the state’s best remaining wind resources.

Furthermore, under a draft plan from the federal Bureau of Land Management, 80 percent of the high-quality wind resources on remote federal lands in the vast deserts of Southern California would be permanently off-limits.

These actions contrast sharply with the level of utility-scale development necessary to meet California’s 50 percent renewable energy goal. According to the most detailed state-commissioned assessment of what must be done to meet the 2030 target, each year the state will need to add 1,600 megawatts of renewable resources – roughly 16 new utility-scale projects – in addition to rooftop solar and aggressively increasing energy-efficiency.

However, some rural communities clearly do not want local wind energy. This is happening despite California’s strict environmental laws and modern industry practices, designed to ensure that any wind project will be built only if years of preconstruction surveys and careful project design demonstrate there will be very limited impact.

Instead of carefully reviewing specific sites and using reasonable measures to address environmental, health, military and other concerns, these communities have resorted to wholesale bans, or have established unattainable standards that amount to bans. In the case of “multiple-use” federal lands, renewable energy is being widely prohibited while other types of activities – such as mining, cattle grazing, recreational-vehicle use, and even oil and gas drilling – are allowed.

No one is saying that utility-scale renewable energy should go everywhere, but done responsibly and with safeguards, it does have to go somewhere if we are to meet California’s goals. Complete bans on wind-energy development indicate an unwillingness to confront the reality of our climate-change predicament.

We all need energy, and so far there is no way to produce it with zero impact. But wind is a proven means of generating clean energy affordably. Its limited impact pales in comparison to those we will experience if we keep generating carbon pollution.

Bans on wind projects cannot be part of a responsible solution to the climate problem.

Michael B. Gerrard is director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. Nancy Rader is executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.