WINDS OF COMPROMISE FOR THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR

By David Dannecker
Staff Writer

Baja California holds great promise for alternative energy. Its high mountain ranges could play host to extensive fields of wind turbines, serving as an economic boon for Mexico, as well as a key energy supplier for Southern California. The total wind energy production potential of the northern Baja peninsula could be as high as 10GW, or up ten billion watts. This has been estimated to be as much as 25 times as much as what would serve Baja’s local energy needs. The Mexican government is actively encouraging development of its promising energy resources, and over the last few years it has begun exporting energy to the United States with a 625MW liquid gas plant near Mexicali. Mexico hopes that the wind potential of Baja will help further cultivate the growing energy sector of its export economy. California imports nearly one third of the energy it uses each year from out-of-state or out-of-country. Governor Brown signed Senate Bill X1-2 this year, setting a goal for 33 percent of California’s energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020, formalizing an executive order submitted by his predecessor, Governor Schwarzenegger. As California continues to import its energy from outside the state, it will need to identify alternative energy sources that can help meet the demand. The surplus of wind energy in Baja could boost California on its way to meeting these goals. Sempra, an American energy company, is looking to develop wind resources in Baja for import to southern California through its own existing energy infrastructure. The first stage of this project is expected to open in 2012, bringing in 125MW of wind power to the Californian grid, and Sempra is planning to eventually scale its Mexican wind production up to 1200MW for import to California.

While the development of this new energy is promising, it also holds the potential to disrupt a recent wildlife conservation success story. The Baja peninsula is also playing host to a part of the reintroduction effort for the California condor. This native condor once ranged across the American southwest, up to the state of Washington and down into Mexico. In the late 1980s, when their numbers dwindled dangerously close to extinction, all 22 remaining California Condors were brought into captivity by the San Diego Zoo. Today, after a highly successful captive breeding program, the California Condor has seen a population increase of over 1600 percent. Now these recovering birds are being reintroduced to select sites in California, Arizona and most recently a site was founded in Baja in 2002. This newest release site is still small, but expected to grow to a population of 20 breeding pairs through further reintroductions and, hopefully, wild breedings. The Baja site has already seen success; in 2007, a wild condor egg hatched for the first time in Mexico since the 1930s. While the chick from that hatching vanished, another Baja condor chick has hatched in the wild earlier this year, and this hatchling has proven more resilient. All of the reintroduced condor populations have faced a variety of problems to begin with, from collisions with power lines to eating small pieces of litter known as microtrash. The added ecological stress of wind energy development at the youngest wild condor site will not help matters, if not handled in the right way.

The newly reintroduced condors rely on their home range’s wind thermals for travel and scavenging — the very same thermals that wind companies wish to capitalize on. Constructing towering wind farms across the Baja high sierra could obstruct the natural corridors that condors rely on. Additionally, collisions with the blades of wind turbines present a risk to the condors, as well as other birds of prey. If the wind farms are constructed right in the path of the condors’ preferred wind currents, the chance of collisions will greatly increase, and hence the risk of condor fatalities. On its face this presents an interesting conundrum. Both cultivating wind energy and the conservation of endangered species are environmentally friendly interests. How can both initiatives proceed without jeopardizing the condor release site or hampering alternative energy development? Fortunately both parties are looking to compromise, and are moving forward thoughtfully and carefully. Sempra Energy, the main U.S. company involved with Mexico’s plan for wind energy development in Baja, isn’t interested in the blame and bad publicity of operating a condor-killing wind farm. No company wants that kind of press, especially after the great successes the condor population has seen over the last 30 years.

Sempra is helping to sponsor research investigations with the San Diego Zoo to study the condors at the Baja colony. The research is using radio technology to track the habits of the condors. This radiotelemetry tells researchers what times of year and at what age the individual condors use the thermal currents for long distance flight. The researchers can track the patterns and identify potential strategies for compromise. Using the collected data, they aim to identify specific geographic regions, or times of the year that would be unsafe conditions for the wind farms to coexist with the condor colony. With this knowledge, the energy companies could still develop wind energy resources, while putting the condor population at less of a risk. This course of caution is good for both parties, allowing the habits of the condors to be better understood before any potential ecosystem interference, and allowing the energy infrastructure on both sides of the border to prepare for an influx of new power sources. Many energy experts claim that the infrastructure isn’t yet prepared for the variability of wind power at the scale Baja has to offer. In this day and age, as more and more interests butt heads over space and resources, this is a good example of how international and multidisciplinary conflicts should be approached — with both sides interested and willing to work towards a compromise. Carefully planning for the potential outcomes of new development, and looking ahead to find the course of action with the minimal risk of damaging consequences will be necessary if we are going to cultivate responsible development of industry and infrastructure in the future. Fortunately here it seems that the situation is being handled responsibly, and both the energy interests and the conservation interests appear to be interested in reaching a good compromise. It will be interesting to see how this situation evolves over the next months and years, but for now it seems like good news for the condors, good news for wind energy, good news for Baja and good news for California.

Images courtesy of David Dannecker.

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