The 140 MW Pacific Wind project, located in Kern County, Calif., is owned and operated by EDF Renewable Energy. The wind farm is powered by 70 Senvion MM92 2 MW wind turbines and, nearly two years into operation, is one of EDF’s top performers, according to Mark Tholke, the company’s vice president of the west region.
San Diego Gas & Electric is buying the wind farm’s output via a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA), and the project interconnects to Southern California Edison’s (SCE) ambitious Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project (TRTP). Additionally, the wind farm is co-located with the 143 MW Catalina Solar project, making it one of the U.S. wind industry’s first co-located wind and solar plants. When Catalina was commissioned in July 2013, it was the eighth largest solar project in the world.
Pacific Wind is located on 8,000 acres of land adjacent to the Manzana Wind Farm, which EDF permitted before selling it to Iberdrola Renewables.
In fact, Tholke explains the Pacific Wind farm harkens back to a period when California wind energy was in its Golden Age – a time when wind projects were plentiful, when PPAs were easily obtainable and before the state’s wind industry was flooded with cheap solar capacity. (For more on California’s wind market, see “”.)
According to Tholke, Pacific Wind proves that when transmission capacity and a PPA are present, a wind project can come together regardless of many other obstacles. And considering this wind farm might not have materialized at all if not for the plucky determination of the project team, he makes a powerful statement.
Going door to door
When it comes to building a wind farm, developers typically ink land lease agreements with a handful of local residents who allow the building of a wind farm on their property in exchange for payment. In a common scenario, a wind developer may deal with fewer than five landowners or as many as 25, depending on the region and the project’s layout. However, in the case of Pacific Wind, EDF had to negotiate with nearly 250 landowners.
To understand the larger-than-normal number of landholders requires a bit of explanation.
During the real estate boom of the 1960s, many anticipated that Kern County would benefit from the same kind of build-out experienced by neighboring Los Angeles County. When catalogs and brochures began billing the county as “the next Los Angeles,” speculators from all over the world followed.
According to Robert Rugh, wind industry veteran and Kern County resident, many people acquired land lots there on the basis of either speculation for future market appreciation or for building on the lots at some future date.
When the region failed to grow as envisioned, the desert area fell into disrepair, and the legal property owners never followed.
Consequently, EDF had to travel abroad – Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines – to negotiate enough lease agreements to form a proper string of wind turbines. To Tholke, the exercise was like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle.
“Tracking down landowners to sign agreements was the biggest challenge,” he recalls. “When the land team could not reach people by phone or by mail, they traveled to cold call by knocking on someone’s door. More often than not, it worked.”
“It was a challenge that we collectively rallied around,” Tholke recalls, adding that the company ramped up staffing and prioritized land lease procurement.
While there were a few large land tracts, Tholke says that parcel sizes came in the following increments: 2.5, 5, 10, 20, 40, 80 and 160 acres. Working from enlarged maps of the project site, the team tracked its progress by color-coding each level of completion, such as “in negotiation,” “title issue,” “leased” and “cannot find owner.”
Despite the company’s best efforts, Tholke explains the project’s boundaries still have holes “where we just couldn’t come to an agreement with the owner.”
Having obtained enough signatures to move forward, the developer encountered other challenges during construction – the by-product of economic development gone wrong.
“Considering that the city never grew as intended, many landowners stranded investments,” Rugh recalls. “Several buildings were erected then abandoned, and squatters began to occupy some of the structures.”
In fact, EDF had to destroy and discard several makeshift structures that were being used as laboratories for methamphetamine.
At the same time that EDF was working to complete Pacific, SCE was in the midst of building out its ambitious TRTP, a high-voltage transmission project taking renewable energy from the area (namely Pacific Wind and Manzana) and delivering it to SCE customers and the California transmission grid via 220 kV high-voltage transmission lines.
Consisting of new and upgraded electric transmission lines and substations between eastern Kern County and San Bernardino County, the TRTP plays a vital role in meeting California’s renewable energy goal of 33% by the year 2020.
“The TRTP is a big deal because it solves the chicken-and-egg dilemma around wind energy,” explains Tholke. “Do you need wind farms to build new transmission, or do you need new transmission to build wind farms?”
Tholke credits the State of California, which provided backstop funding for the transmission project. “That gave San Diego Gas & Electric comfort to extend a PPA.”
For Tholke, the building of the TRTP forced his team to be on schedule.
“Transmission planning in the abstract and transmission planning in reality are two different things,” he says. “As soon as the timelines and construction on the TRTP began, we quickly realized how important it was to get those landownership agreements.”
In retrospect, Tholke takes great satisfaction in the wind farm simply because of the complexities involved.
“Pacific Wind is a point of pride for the company.” w
Project Profile: Pacific Wind
Piecing Together A Wind Farm One Land Lease At A Time
By Mark Del Franco
EDF Renewable Energy will not soon forget the many challenges encountered during the permitting and construction of the 140 MW Pacific Wind project.
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