Roughly 10 years ago, a Texas-based company requested approval to build a large wind farm near Burney 1 mile west of the existing Hatchet Ridge wind farm. The project, named Fountain Wind, would place 48 windmills on the ridge.
A Brief History of the Fountain Wind Project
The county rejected this project proposal on multiple occasions and even passed a local ordinance blocking the construction of all large-scale wind farms. The proposed project brought significant backlash from our community for several key reasons:
- Native American tribes argued the project would disrupt important cultural sites
- Concerns that the wind turbines would increase wildfire risk and reduce the ability of the county to engage in aerial firefighting in the area
- Belief by residents of the area that the increased wind turbine presence would hurt their property values
- Negative impact on the natural environment and mountainside views in an area somewhat dependent on tourism
- Potential negative impact on the biology of the region, specifically certain bird populations
As a result, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to reject the proposal. The project applicant appealed the decision to the Board, which voted 4 to 1 to deny the project.
The county’s rejection of the project – along with similar rejections in other counties – led the California Legislature to pass AB 205 in June 2022, giving the state’s California Energy Commission (CEC) the authority to overrule local decisions in the case of large renewable energy projects.
When a project owner applies to the CEC for its review, the CEC has 270 days to conduct environmental impact reviews and make a final decision from the day it deems the project application to be complete. For this project, we have until July 2024 for a final decision to be issued.
The current Board of Supervisors has taken a clear stance of opposition against this project and elected to invest ~$100,000 in a public information campaign to stir public opposition to the project.
On November 28, the CEC held its first public meeting for this project in Anderson.
My Position on the Fountain Wind Project
I stand with the current board in opposition to this project primarily because I believe that the people of Shasta County have been clear in our opposition to this project both in the past and as recently as the CEC’s November 28th public information meeting – and my job, if elected, is to represent the interests of the people of this county. I reviewed the 200+ comments submitted on the state website for this project. 86% of them are in opposition to the project:
For example, this public comment by Steven Johnson, attorney and Shasta Fire Safe Council board member, provides an incredibly thorough and convincing case against the approval of this project. Further, in the past, a petition opposing the project was signed by 2,000 residents. Those associated with the project applicant argue that opposition comes from a vocal minority, but existing data does not seem to support that claim.
A Roadmap for Defeating this Project
I am not convinced that the county’s current plan and efforts will be successful. We need a comprehensive strategy, not just a lightly funded public information campaign. AB 205 was written for the very purpose of empowering the state to ignore public opposition. If we are to be successful, we need to use the state’s criteria/requirements strategically and we need to get others to join us in opposing the project.
Here is a roadmap for opposing the project:
1. Continue to work with the Pit River Tribe (and other tribes) to stand in firm opposition to the project: “Cultural tribal resources” are one of the most significant probable effects of the project according to the CEC's presentation on November 28th. The CEC mentioned that there are up to 20 tribal resources that could be disrupted, while the project applicant argues there is only one. We should clarify how many resources would be affected, how significantly they would be affected, and if mitigation strategies would help prevent disruption to these sites.
2. Get the Community Foundation of the North State and other community-based organizations to pull out of their community benefits agreements with the project applicant: The CEC requires applicants of this process to have a signed community benefits agreement. It seems likely that our community foundation and other community-based organizations, particularly in that area, would not want to align themselves with an effort that the majority of the community does not think will benefit the community even if it resulted in additional funds. The county should talk with them about their involvement in this project.
[Update: I received notice after publishing this article that the Community Foundation of the North State decided in November to withdraw from the community benefits agreement with the project applicant.]
3. Work with local trade unions to withdraw their support for this project: It is not surprising that local trade unions would support a project that offers them jobs at prevailing wage. Rather than try to convince them to act against their own interests, the County should seek out other projects for these trades that could replace this work and be even more compelling. If the County could offer an alternate project of similar scale that has community support, you could imagine that the local workers would prefer a project supported by their own community over one that is not. This is an important piece of the puzzle because the CEC requires applicants to pay prevailing wage to skilled and trained workforce. Without trade union support, this project could find it challenging to meet this requirement.
4. Compile expert testimony and evidence from local and state firefighting experts to demonstrate more conclusively the impact of this project on wildfire risk and refute the claims of the project applicant: The project applicant claims to have the support of several former CalFire personnel and has proposed clear steps to mitigate wildfire risk. However, many local and former state firefighters, believe this project significantly increases the fire risk to the surrounding communities and that the applicant's mitigation efforts are insufficient. Testimony from three pilots involved in aerial firefighting, including the recent Chairman of the National Associated Aerial Firefighters, the former CDF Deputy Chief in charge of air operations for 30 years, and a current retardant pilot who has flown DC-10s to fight wildfires from the air in three different countries on two continents, makes a compelling case for the enhanced wildfire risk. Comments like this should be compiled and presented to the CEC. It may also be worth getting as many firefighting experts as possible to sign a single letter opposing the project on the grounds of increased wildfire risk.
5. Solicit the support of all counties that have rejected large renewable energy projects in the past or that have large renewable energy projects under consideration currently: These counties have a vested interest in the outcome of this application in Shasta County. It makes sense that they would want to work with us to oppose state overreach to reduce the likelihood that they, too, will be forced to approve projects they don't support. To date, only San Bernardino County has publicly sided with Shasta County on this issue. But other counties have taken similar action. For example, Los Angeles County banned wind turbines in unincorporated areas in 2015. Humboldt and Lake counties have rejected similar projects. Kern County fought a large wind energy project in court. We should be reaching out to these and other counties to demonstrate statewide opposition to the use of AB 205 in these cases.
6. Work with other regional/state groups to publicly declare opposition to this project, including the California State Association of Counties and Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC): These groups are focused on representing the interests of counties, which increases the likelihood that they would support us. For example, a lobbyist from RCRC said this in response to the passage of AB 205:
“To have that authority taken out of our hands and given to the Energy Commission — that much farther from the people, that much removed from local sensitivity — to have that authority clawed back is really painful. We’re in the crosshairs, but we don’t think we are the right target here.”
Even groups that we may assume would support the approval of this project may not think it's a good idea for the state to squash local control. For example, the director of California state affairs for American Clean Power, an association of renewable energy companies, criticized AB 205, saying: “What is this proposal solving for? In general, we work really well with local government. We have invested a lot in those relationships. We prefer to work with them rather than strong-arm them. Overall we don’t see this as unlocking the path to accelerating clean energy.”
There are likely more powerful groups with broader reach that feel similarly. If we could rally their support for our position, we would have a much stronger case.
7. Work with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and other environmental groups to make a strong biological/environmental case during the CEQA process: Research on almost 300 renewable energy projects in the country that have received opposition find that most successful opposition efforts involve wildlife-related claims, a focus on environment impact, and lawsuits by big environmental advocacy groups. In its consultation letter to the CEC, the CA Department of Fish & Wildfire thoroughly explains several biological and environmental impacts, including that the project area is within the range of over 100 special status species. If we haven't already, Shasta County should engage environmental groups for their support.
8. Determine if there are other sites for a wind farm of this size in California or nearby: One of the project applicant's main arguments for approving this project is the claim that there are no other suitable sites for such a project in California. Given the state's aggressive climate goals, one could see how that argument would be compelling to the CEC, which is likely why its 1st and 3rd questions of the public during November’s meeting related to this point. While I don't have reason to doubt the applicant's claim, it would be worth the county conducting its own analysis to see if there are other options. Further, California utility companies are not required to meet their renewable energy goals using only California-produced electricity. Redding Electric Utility, for example, buys renewable energy from eastern Washington. Are there sites in neighboring states with lower wildfire risk, no tribal resources, and fewer environmental impacts where this wind farm could go? We should know.
If we expect to end our streak of defeats to the state, we need to be more strategic and more collaborative. This roadmap is intensive and would require significant effort, but that is what it will take to win over the more powerful and better-resourced state.
What do you think of the Fountain Wind project and this roadmap for defeating it?