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County seeks permit relaxation options for wind energy testing

In an effort to promote renewable energy, the County of San Diego is reviewing options to reduce permit requirements for temporary wind turbine testing equipment and small systems for personal use.

A 4-0 San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote September 24, with Supervisor Pam Slater-Price in Washington, directed county staff to return to the supervisors within 120 days with recommendations on possible permit relaxation for testing stations and private systems not used to sell energy. The review will include stipulations regarding height requirements, the number of testing poles which can be placed on one property, the maximum density of the poles, setback requirements, and the duration of the time the temporary poles would be allowed to remain.

“Our process right now is cumbersome,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “We need to look at streamlining that process.”

In 2007 approximately 12 percent of California’s electricity was derived from renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and small hydroelectric facilities, and large hydroelectric plants generated approximately another 12 percent of the state’s electricity. San Diego Gas and Electric currently provides six percent of its power from renewable sources, although it is under a state mandate to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

“Wind is free. It’s an unlimited resource,” said John Gaglioti of Iberdola. “Wind energy preserves San Diego County’s natural landscape.”

Wind energy is one of the potential renewable energy sources in San Diego County. “I don’t think it’s going to be the ultimate answer, but at the same time we should make it not so onerous,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

Before a wind turbine is installed, temporary test poles with measuring equipment are erected to determine whether a site is viable for future wind energy generation. “These are important studies to take,” said Don Parent of San Diego Gas and Electric.

“There are very few places in the State of California and in the county where wind projects are viable,” Gaglioti said.

Currently the County of San Diego requires a Major Use Permit not only for a commercial wind generation facility itself but also for the installation of temporary wind turbine testing equipment.

“Wind energy in San Diego is a miserable failure. After years of work there’s only one 50-megawatt facility in existence, and that’s because it’s on an Indian reservation,” said Richard Caputo of the San Diego Renewable Energy Society. “A Major Use Permit is an unreasonable barrier for a test station.”

The cost of a Major Use Permit can reach $100,000 or more and take two years or longer. An Administrative Permit would require Department of Planning and Land Use review and would still allow for a public review process, although an initial hearing would be held by the Zoning Administrator rather than the Planning Commission.

“These are basically temporary structures. They have no foundations, require no external power,” said Northern Arizona University research engineer Steve Atkins.

Atkins noted that testing stations not only determine whether a turbine is viable but also allow for measuring of air particulates and wind forecasting. “A great deal of information can come from these,” he said.

The testing towers are usually under 60 meters, or 200 feet, since a structure exceeding that height requires aircraft warning lights under Federal Aviation Administration regulations and would thus require external power. The turbines themselves, however, often capture wind 80 to 100 meters above the ground.

The testing stations themselves are approximately six inches in diameter. “We’re not talking about Eiffel Towers,” said James Milch.

Milch indicated that fewer than 50 percent of the testing stations determine the site to be viable for a wind turbine.

Because ham radio and television are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the county’s Zoning Ordinance has an exemption for ham radio towers and television antennas which do not exceed 200 feet in height and are for personal use.

“Green light for green energy sounds so nice and so benign,” said Donna Tisdale, the chair of the Boulevard Community Planning Group. “This is not benign. This is not about pushing green energy.”

Tisdale told the supervisors that commercial energy interests have been monitoring planning group meetings and meeting with area property owners. “Our little community is under such an assault from all these wind energy corporations,” she said.

“The next step is they’re going to change the zoning,” Tisdale said. “They’re trying to change everything.”

More than 800 megawatts of wind energy are proposed in East County. “Two billion dollars they’ll pay for turbines and they don’t want to pay for a Major Use Permit,” Tisdale said.

“There’s always a tendency to dump projects in the backcountry,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Boulevard.

The original recommendation was to direct county staff to amend the Zoning Ordinance to require an Administrative Permit rather than a Major Use Permit for the installation of temporary testing equipment and to return to the supervisors within 120

days. “The problem with the recommendation I have is it states: ‘Let’s do it’,” Jacob said. “I don’t have enough details in front of me in order to make that determination today.”

The decision to look at alternatives rather than to send a specific recommendation through the ordinance amendment process will also allow for more community input opportunities. “Anything like this we normally run through the community planning groups,” Jacob said. “Those planning groups should be afforded the opportunity to weigh in.”

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