News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Kern County May Limit Red Lights Atop Wind Turbines

Warning lights on Riverside County wind turbines | Photo: retinafunk/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you've spent time at night in the Kern County portion of the California Desert in the last few years, you've seen them: that ever-multiplying galaxy of bright red warning beacons atop wind turbines. But the County's Board of Supervisors will be considering a proposal to turn some of those lights off, and limit their use in future wind projects.

Intended as warning beacons for aviators, the red beacons can be incredibly distracting, especially when turbine blades reflect their light in flashes as they rotate. Red aviation lights have also been implicated in bird deaths, as they disorient birds that then fly into towers or guy lines -- or those same turbine blades.

But a recent study by a California engineering consultant has suggested that close to two-thirds of the beacons on wind turbines in Kern and Los Angeles counties could be turned off without compromising air safety -- and the Federal Aviation Administration agrees.

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Earlier this year, the Lancaster-based aviation consulting firm ClancyJG International reported to the Kern County Board of Supervisors that with careful mapping, 64 percent of the red lights atop local 500-foot wind turbine towers could be doused without compromising the safety of aviators.

That's an especially important concern in the western Mojave given the proximity of the Mojave Air and Space Port, the site of several aeronautical firsts including the first privately funded space flight. (The Air and Space Port helped fund the ClancyJG study.)

According to the study, turning off beacons in the middle of most turbine installations would have no impact on aviator safety. The red warning lights would be kept on at the edges of installations and at the ends of turbine rows. Though the FAA has strict rules mandating warning beacons, the study was apparently persuasive: the agency gave its approval to the plan earlier this year after inspectors conducted night-time aerial surveys of the wind fields.

Local wind turbine operators, anxious for ways to mollify local opponents without sacrificing their earnings, have also supported the plan.

On Tuesday, October 15, Kern County Supervisors will hear a report on the beacon reduction plan from the county's Planning and Community Development Department. If the Board votes to accept the plan, superfluous lights could be turned off immediately.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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