SDG&E, Montana Wind Company in Flap Over Eagles

Spotting equipment used at Rim Rock to monitor birds | Photo: NaturEner

A pair of lawsuits filed in the past week marks heightening tension between San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and a Spanish-owned wind turbine facility in Montana. The utility says it's backing out of a $285 million deal because the operator of the 189 megawatt Rim Rock wind facility near Cut Bank, Montana failed to live up to a number of terms in the companies' agreement, mainly having to do with wildlife protection.

But the owner of the 126-turbine facility in Glacier and Toole counties, the Spanish company NaturEner, counters that the San Diego utility is merely suffering "buyer's remorse," now that the Renewable Energy Credits SDG&E agreed to buy from NaturEner are more expensive than their market value.

Each company has filed suit against the other, SDG&E in San Diego Superior Court and NaturEner in the equivalent court in Montana.

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The turbines at Rim Rock have killed at least two large raptors since the facility started up in October 2012, according to NaturEner: a goshawk and a ferruginous hawk.

The local Audubon affiliate reports five active golden eagle nests in the Rim Rock area, and the company says those eagles use the project's footprint as much as ten percent of the time -- though NaturEner expresses that figure more optimistically, saying that the eagles aren't there ninety percent of the time.

"NaturEner has implemented industry-leading wildlife conservation measures at the Rim Rock project," the company said in a press release. "These measures include the installation of innovative radar detection systems for eagles, and the positioning of trained avian biologists at different locations who can immediately pause wind turbines, in coordination with NaturEner's 24/7 real-time Operations Center, if there is even a slight risk of potential harm to an approaching eagle."

According to a story on the facility's eagle management posted on NaturEner's web site, the company says it can "curtail" -- slow down or stop -- wind turbines within 21 seconds of its monitors spotting a bird that seems to be heading into trouble. The company admits it's putting pressure on its biologists to make those curtailments as infrequent and short-duration as possible.

Until ReWire gets a copy of SDG&E's lawsuit, we can't report on the precise objections the utility has to NaturEner's wildlife management. But it's an ignominious development in a business relationship that was much-lauded early in 2012. The utility had agreed to plow $285 million in tax-equity investment funds into the facility, and then buy renewable Energy Credits from NaturEner equal to almost four percent of the utility's total power load. The tax equity financing, the first deal of its kind approved by California regulators, was ostensibly designed to allow the utility to buy into the wind facility with minimal impact to ratepayers.

SDG&E also agreed to buy Renewable Energy Credits from the facility that it would use to meet its obligations under California's Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires investor-owned utilities to derive 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

That's the issue that NaturEner maintains is SDG&E's real problem. "SDG&E is obligated to purchase, at a contractually fixed price, the renewable energy credits generated by Rim Rock over the next 20 years," the company said in a press release Monday. "Since the purchase agreement was signed, the market price of renewable energy credits has dropped precipitously from the price that SDG&E agreed to pay," the company continues, charging that SDG&E is "using the Avian Conditions [of the contracts] as pretext for escaping its contractual obligations."

ReWire will report back on SDG&E's actual complaints about Rim Rock wildlife when we get a hold of the suit filed iin San Diego.

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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