Two public forums held earlier this month on the proposed Terra-Gen Wind Generation Project covered the same topics but the moods were radically different. The first meeting, a Nov. 6 panel discussion sponsored by the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, was calm and rational in tone, attracting nearly a thousand people to the large auditorium in Founders Hall. At the second meeting, a public hearing held the next day by the Humboldt County Planning Commission, the mood was intense and sometimes angry among the hundreds of people who crowded into the Board of Supervisors Chamber, some waiting up to five hours for their turn to speak.
The project was first brought to public attention in May, when Terra-Gen, LLC unveiled its proposal to tap the winds that rush across Bear River and Monument ridges south of Rio Dell and Scotia. The wind would be captured by about 50 giant wind turbines, each 600 feet tall, lining the top of the ridges. They would be mounted to concrete pads, each one occupying several acres. A huge power line, called a gen-tie, would march down the hillside and cross the Eel River, where it would plug into PG&E's grid at the Bridgeville power substation.
The turbines would be barged into Humboldt Bay, brought ashore at Fields Landing, driven down U.S. Highway 101 to Pepperwood and transported up the ridge on improved secondary roads.
Trees under the power lines and in the vicinity of the turbines would be clearcut, and vegetation would have to be removed to make way for widened roads.
The project is controversial. Proponents say it could supply a substantial proportion of the clean, renewable energy Humboldt County has committed to using and acquiring in order to combat climate change. Opponents say that, realistically, most of the wind energy would leave the county, while the project would result in massive environmental damage to an area that is sacred to the Wiyot Tribe, hosts a whole array of rare or threatened life forms, and that could be made especially vulnerable to forest fires.
Terra-Gen owns numerous California wind generation plants, all of which are located in deserts and plains, with none in forested mountains. The company is owned by Equity Capital Partners, a private firm that owns power plants all over North America, including coal and natural gas-fired plants, as well as wind, solar and geothermal facilities.
"We are a wind generation business and there needs to be wind," said Terra-Gen Senior Director for Wind Development Nathan Vajdos at HSU, explaining why the company had chosen Humboldt for its proposed wind farm.
He listed the benefits the project would bring to the area.
"We would immediately become the second largest taxpayer in the county," he said. "We would offer a large number of construction jobs and a smaller number of permanent jobs. We're going to reduce greenhouse gas; the equivalent of taking 82,000 cars off the road."
Terra-Gen also hopes to improve the stability of the electrical grid by making millions of dollars in improvements, called Reliability Network Upgrades.
"Will we have impacts?" asked Vajdos. "Yes. The process that guides us through that, by law, which we know well, is CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act]. You identify the impacts, and you avoid, minimize and mitigate for those impacts. We follow the law and we rely upon the guidance of the county."
Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) Executive Director Tom Wheeler said he is deeply concerned about the project's effects upon wildlife. The California Energy Commission together with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife came up with a rating system for energy project sites, he explained, with "1" being great, for example, an area with other wind turbines already in place, and "4" being terrible, because it is pristine and home to endangered species.
"No. 4 sites are deemed inappropriate for wind energy development," Wheeler said. "Here, the project site that has been chosen is a Site 4."
The site would result in the devastation of large numbers of hoary bats, and also affect endangered species like the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl, Wheeler said.
Wiyot Tribe botanist Adam Canter, lugging a huge green binder of archaeological site records, said the project would cause irreparable harm to the cultural artifacts of the tribe. Many different tribal people have used Bear River Ridge — Tsakiyuwit, in Wiyot — over the course of centuries and he said it should be on the National Register of Historic Places. The ridge is also a high prayer site to the tribe, a place where a large expanse of its ancestral territory can be viewed.
The prairies are pristine and beautiful, Canter said, rich with flowering bulbs that are officially listed as California rare plants, and others that were an important food source to the Wiyot people.
Canter pointed out that in terms of reducing greenhouse gases, the existing redwood forests and native grasslands in the area are excellent carbon sinks, part of the "lungs of the Pacific northwest."
Donna Wright, chief executive officer of the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce said her agency supported all kinds of economic growth, especially those involving renewable energy, such as Terra-Gen.
Panelist Lori Biondini represented the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), a joint powers agency that seeks to reduce energy demand, increase energy efficiency and meet state requirements regarding renewable energy use. The agency supports both onshore and offshore wind energy projects, and many Humboldt residents buy their electricity from them, even though the bill comes from PG&E.
The community, Biondini said, has decided to prioritize local energy production so that it will have more control over its grid and its impacts. But RCEA's ability to push these types of projects is limited.
"RCEA is not sitting on a bunch of cash reserves," she said. "We don't have money at this point to build projects. RCEA issued a request for proposals for electricity generation to project developers throughout the state and the only local proposed project was Terra-Gen's."
Members of the audience then got a chance to ask questions. In response to one, Vajdos told the crowd that he understands that redwood forests are the "churches" of local people — a remark that would be lobbed back at him the following day.
Confused by rumors that locally produced electricity would stay here in Humboldt instead of wandering out into the great electrical void of California, the Journal reached out to RCEA Executive Director Matthew Marshall for an explanation, basically asking how PG&E knew the ancestry of the electrons it delivers and whether the company can keep local electrons local.
Marshall explained that, at least right now, all the electricity in the state goes into one big pool, or market. If a community agency like RCEA wants renewable energy, it takes the power that it needs from the larger pool but writes its check to an individual renewable energy company that produces the power via wind, sun or geothermal energy. If Terra-Gen gets to build its project, RCEA would start paying them for its power, even though it comes via PG&E and there's currently no way to determine exactly where and how electrons used locally are generated.
Eventually, enough improvements may be made to the Bridgeville substation to wall Humboldt County off from the rest of the state grid, if desired. In that case, Terra-Gen electrons would first fill Humboldt's needs but if there were a surplus due to an especially windy day, the electricity could travel to other areas.
But that's all speculative at this point, Marshall said, as there's nothing in Terra-Gen's proposal to isolate Humboldt County from the rest of PG&E's statewide grid, so this shouldn't be seen as a silver bullet to protect against future PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which caused two 24-plus hour blackouts locally last month.
The day after the forum at HSU, people flooded into the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chambers to hear the county planning commission take up the project for the first time. They filled the chamber, lined the aisles and walls, with some spilling into the lobby.
State law regarding environmental documents is complex, but for large projects, two main documents are required: a highly detailed Draft Environmental Report (DEIR), which gives the meat of the project and describes what possible environmental impacts are likely to result from it, and a Final Environmental Report (FEIR), which consists of comments from community members and organizations, the responses to these comments and any proposed mitigations (ways in which the project's harmful effects can be reduced).
It's up to the planning commission to decide whether to issue a conditional use permit for the project, which would pave the way for Terra-Gen to begin seeking the numerous permits from various agencies needed to begin construction. In weighing this decision, the commission will be relying heavily on the DEIR and FEIR, which outline the project's impacts and mitigation measures necessary to bring them below a level of "significance." Down the line, anyone disagreeing with county staff's findings in the EIR can file a lawsuit to dispute them and any planning commission decision is appealable to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
Usually FEIRs are skinny documents but this one stretches thousands of pages long and was released to the public — and the planning commission — only a few days before the Nov. 7 meeting. It contained comments from 244 individual citizens and several federal and state agencies, cities, tribes and environmental organizations, as well as several lengthy scientific documents submitted by readers. The vast majority of written comments opposed the project.
The commission meeting began with a detailed description of the project by the staff and Vajdos, which spanned more than two hours. Many changes had been made in the project since the DEIR was released in May. Generally speaking, the project has been downsized and now includes 47 turbines while the initial plans allowed for up to 60. Vajdos said the downsizing has rendered the project only marginally economical.
The planning commissioners then revealed their ex parte communications — private meetings, conversations and emails between themselves and other people who have a stake in the outcome of the project or opinions about it.
Five of the seven commissioners indicated they had shared coffee, meals and conversations with Terra-Gen staff. Terra-Gen's local liaison, Natalynne DeLapp, used to work at EPIC and several commissioners described her as a personal friend. Third District Commissioner Noah Levy said Terra-Gen staff had taken him and other interested stakeholders on a helicopter trip, flying over the ridge to view the project area.
At-large Commissioner Melanie McCavour said she had not had coffee with project applicants, although she had invited the author of the EIR to a class on environmental assessment she teaches at HSU and the topic of Terra-Gen had come up.
"I haven't been bribed," she said. "I had no helicopter rides. I am friends with Natalynne DeLapp and have had several conversations with her about wind energy in the past, but not specifically about the details of this project. I have personally driven down to the site on my own."
Fifth District Commissioner Peggy O'Neill said she received one phone call from the project applicants but told them she preferred to wait until the public meeting to discuss the issues.
Levy said he was intrigued by Vajdos' revelation that the project would only be marginally profitable and asked if the county had received any financials from the company, wondering aloud if the company could afford to do any further mitigations if its margin was so slim. Planning Director John Ford responded that no financials have been received.
At-large Commissioner Brian Mitchell said he had not received the huge FEIR until that morning and did not want to ask questions until he'd had time to read it. Ford assured him that there would be plenty of opportunities in the future to discuss the project.
McCavour asked numerous questions about the biological mitigations proposed in the EIR and wondered about the relative carbon costs of cutting down forests that would otherwise stand for 80 years. Staff indicated it believes the project would have a net carbon benefit.
Then, for the next two hours, the public got its chance to speak, lining up by the dozens. Very few people expressed approval of the project but those who did said that the dire climate emergency facing the planet demands sacrifices from us all.
Larry Goldberg, a member of the climate action group 350 Humboldt and RCEA's community advisory committee, said he's a 41-year resident of Humboldt County and a life-long environmentalist, who has advocated solar power since the late 1970s.
"In the past week, 11,000 scientists have told us that we are going to be facing untold suffering due to climate crisis," he said. "We are in a climate crisis right now and it's only going to get worse. It's a stark warning that's coming to the world and unless we act immediately and decisively locally, the future may be ever increasing sea levels, drought, wildfire, insect outbreaks and widespread tree die-offs."
Speaking to those who have proposed adding solar panels to every home and building in the county as an alternative, Goldberg said he has a solar system at his home, which cost $50,000 to install. Outfitting the county would cost billions, he said, while we need to "reduce our carbon footprint today."
"We have to start looking at climate change as a crisis," he said.
But the line of reasoning that the climate crisis demands sacrifice from all did not go over well with some tribal members, who pointed out that historically it has always been Native land that is sacrificed; that their culture had lived in harmony with nature and had not created the climate crisis; and that the decision to build this project was being made by white people.
"Terra-Gen and the Chamber of Commerce folks tell the Wiyot that they recognize their cultural resources are going to be impacted and they are very sorry but we have to face the fact that our industrial culture created this and you and your land stand in the way. Once again, progress. Sound like a familiar story?" one man asked rhetorically. "It's 2019, and I ask, 'Have we taken enough from them?' We have a climate crisis and we need to do something about it but we need to do something based on the principles of climate justice, where we do not place the burden of alternative energy projects like this on those that did not create the problem."
Geneva Thompson, associate general counsel for the Yurok Tribe, began her comments by acknowledging the meeting was taking place on Wiyot land.
"I am also here to express the Yurok Tribe's support of our neighbors, the Wiyot Tribe, and the Wiyot Tribe's opposition to this project," she said. "We oppose this project because the FEIR has failed to provide adequate mitigation measures to avoid the significant impacts to Wiyot cultural resources, cultural landscapes and the California condors. ... The condor has been spiritually tied to the Yurok ceremonies since the beginning of the world. Its feathers are used and its songs are sung in the World Renewal Ceremony in which the Yurok people pray and fast to balance the world."
There were vast numbers of reasons why people oppose the project. Simplest and easiest to understand were ranchers and retirees whose pastoral lifestyles would become industrialized and who feared for the loss of both their serenity and their property values. Many residents of Scotia and Rio Dell fell into this category, and both the city of Rio Dell and the town of Scotia oppose the project.
Many people pointed out that the serene-looking windmills would take on a different appearance at night, when federally-required red flashing lights would strobe from the tops of the towers, potentially bringing light pollution to the area, disorienting drivers and shining into people's bedrooms.
Others said they are appalled by the loss of life that would occur — not human life, but life nonetheless. One person cited a study showing that 21,000 bats could be killed during the 30-year life of the project.
People questioned the veracity and accuracy of the scientific studies that Terra-Gen quotes in its document, and whether the mitigations proposed had any real value. One mitigation, for example, proposes mass poisoning of the rodents on which hawks and eagles feed in order to discourage the large birds from staying in the project location. This, a critic charged, could destroy the entire food chain.
Many people also expressed concerns about fire, worrying both about the project's powerful transmission lines that would cross trees and brush, and about the windmills themselves, which have a reputation for catching fire in other areas.
Others wondered how much power the county would really have to monitor these mitigation measures once the project was built. They pointed out that multi-billion dollar corporations sometimes thumb their noses at county regulations, knowing they can out-spend local governments in court cases.
Others wondered if the project was really going to eliminate greenhouse gases, since entire swaths of forest, which are carbon sinks, would have to be clearcut, while native grassland, also carbon sinks, would be covered with acres of concrete pads.
Others wondered about the effects of the turbines on the microclimate of the area. The ridges are where the clouds form that carry moisture in from the ocean. These clouds drift down into the valleys and become the fog banks that provide the redwoods with moisture during the dry summer months. Would the 600-foot-tall wind turbines interfere with cloud formation?
"Research has shown that turbines reduce humidity and dry out soils downwind from the turbine sites," said Canter, of the Wiyot Tribe. "What's downwind from these turbine sites? Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Grizzly Creek Pamplin Grove. These groves store more carbon than any other forest type in the world."
As the evening drew on, the public became more caustic. One woman reminded Vajdos that he had compared the redwood forests to churches the previous evening.
"Are you going to go back to San Diego and pull down a church there to put up a wind turbine?" she taunted.
Another woman suggested that if people were genuinely serious about stopping climate change, they would stop driving, stop buying and grow all their food locally.
"This is too big a decision for an unelected body to make," said McKinleyville resident Ken Miller. "This affects the whole county. The planning commission should deny the permits. Let Terra-Gen appeal the results and bring it before the board of supervisors, which consists of elected officials. Let them decide it."
When the last speaker finished around 9 p.m., Ford said the hearing would be continued on Nov. 14 and, if necessary, again to Nov. 21. That would give everybody more time to read the documents and give other members of the public a chance to speak.
Find all the environmental review documents on the county's website, www.humboldtgov.org/2408/Humboldt-Wind-Energy-Project.
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist. She prefers she/her pronouns and tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.