When fully completed this month, Pattern Energy’s 265 MW Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility will feature 112 Siemens 2.3 MW wind turbines operating on approximately a 10,000-acre site on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The wind farm, located along California’s Imperial Valley, is emblematic of the Obama administration’s push to site renewable energy projects on public lands located in the western U.S. In fact, the BLM considered Ocotillo a priority project because it had completed its environmental impact statement – which is necessary for projects seeking to build on public lands – and met the requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, which mandates all state and local agencies to follow a protocol of analysis and impact assessment for proposed projects, while providing recommendations to mitigate potential environmental issues.
Because Pattern completed its environmental reviews – and had a signed 20-year power purchase agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) – the BLM issued a record of decision for the project granting Pattern the legal ability to build the wind farm.
However, constructing one of the first wind farms on public lands was not going to be easy. As with any new endeavor, the path trailblazed by first-movers can be fraught with setbacks, project delays and pitfalls.
For starters, the Ocotillo project lies in the heart of an area that is considered sacred burial ground by local Native American tribes. Therefore, it is not uncommon to encounter Native American artifacts, such as shards and arrowheads, in the desert.
With more than 30 Native American tribes across the region, the Southern California desert is culturally sensitive, explains Greg Miller, the BLM’s renewable energy program manager for the California Desert District. At the same time, Miller explains, Ocotillo is the first major wind project on BLM lands since the 1980s. Therefore, the project was bound to receive plenty of attention.
During the project’s construction phase, Pattern tried to consider all stakeholders. To preserve the area, Pattern conducted extensive on-site surveys and designed the project to minimize direct impacts on cultural and environmental resources.
“We took a ‘be safe rather than sorry’ approach,” says Pattern Energy CEO Mike Garland.
For example, early plans called for a 400 MW wind farm. However, when the project was deemed too impactful on the environment, Pattern trimmed the number of proposed turbine locations.
The environmental analysis included an extensive public-outreach program and a complex multi-agency approval process. The analysis also featured innovative analytical techniques, including a state-of-the-art radar system linked to video recorders to monitor avian and bighorn sheep activity.
However, such public vetting of the project pushed back the timeline. And the BLM repeatedly sought additional input from the tribes, which Garland says “delayed the project six to nine months longer than we thought. But the BLM did a terrific job of being responsive to all stakeholders.”
Although it may seem simplistic, the BLM’s Miller explains why the agency kept seeking input from the local tribes.
“We wanted to start getting input early and involving the tribes even before the project got started,” Miller says, adding that tribal input continues to help the BLM in guiding and managing the project.
“When approaching a culturally significant area, avoiding the area altogether is our No. 1 priority,” he says. In cases when avoidance is impossible, the BLM will work with the developer to explore alternatives.
Glen Hodges, Pattern’s senior developer who is overseeing project development at Ocotillo, recalls the significant time and energy spent to avoid sensitive resources.
“Even after doing the pre-construction work, we continued to survey and monitor the site during construction in order to minimize cultural impacts,” Hodges explains. “We had tribal monitors, biological managers and BLM compliance representatives on-site looking.”
Fortunately for Pattern, the developer was generally familiar with the BLM’s process by virtue of completing the 151.8 MW Spring Valley wind farm in 2012, the first commercial wind farm in Nevada.
“Working with a government agency is more complicated and time-consuming,” Garland says. “It’s burdensome and, in some ways, unpredictable.”
How unpredictable? Acting on a suggestion from a local tribe, Pattern went so far as to allow the tribes to employ forensic canine units to try to detect the presence of ancient remains.
“We wanted to be as responsive as possible,” Garland explains. “We weren’t exactly sure that using the dogs in such a way has been scientifically proven.”
Despite Pattern’s mitigation measures, several parties, such as the Desert Protective Council, sought to shut down the project. However, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California later ruled in favor of Pattern and the BLM in two separate suits.
In issuing its decisions, the court denied the challenges to the Ocotillo project and dismissed each of the claims that had been asserted against the project.
The court concluded that the BLM and Pattern conducted thorough studies of the effects of the project and had adopted appropriate mitigation measures to avoid or minimize the project’s impact.
“These rulings confirmed that we and the BLM followed the rules, working with Native American tribes, community groups and local residents during the development process,” says Garland.
“We remain committed to building a renewable energy project responsive to the concerns of the local community and respectful of the environment and local cultural resources.”
At press time, the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) declared the area surrounding the site as a sacred Native American site and sought enforcement options from the office of the California Attorney General.
For its part, Pattern maintains that the development of the wind farm was entirely consistent with the objectives and mission of the California NAHC, adding that the site was carefully investigated before any construction occurred.
Working through the BLM, Pattern says it was engaged in “detailed consultation” with Native American tribes.
The lion’s share of the project was completed in December 2012, in time to qualify for the production tax credit, which was expiring on Dec. 31. Pattern expects to energize the remaining 18 wind turbines later this month. To date, the wind farm is performing to expectation.
Despite the difficulties of developing a wind farm on public lands, Garland characterizes Ocotillo as a well-placed renewables resource that benefits the community and utility.
“It’s a great project,” he says, adding that the wind resource at the site tends to be at its most productive in the spring and summer months, and in the afternoon and evening, when SDG&E’s needs are greatest. w
Project Profile: Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility
Ocotillo Underscores Challenges Of Developing On Public Lands
By Mark Del Franco
Pattern Energy is among the first developers to build a project on lands owned by the government. However, the scrutiny almost proved too great to overcome.
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