Today as the unaffected rest of us in the United States go about our workaday lives, about a million harried and displaced residents in the Southern part of California, specifically San Diego County, are caught in the vise-like grip of fear and uncertainty caused by fearsome conflagrations unabatedly fueled by fierce winds popularly referred to by natives as the gusty Santa Ana winds. This added deadly factor has made possible the indiscriminate razing of hundreds of thousand of acres dotted with many precious residences, in spite of having the best fire-fighting technology and people in the world. Many separate fires that now may have been purposely started by loathsome arsonists.
We no doubt fully understand the destructive powers of wind energy in deadly combination with other factors, such as dry as tinderbox conditions in certain wooded or grass areas whether accidentally or purposely combusted with the introduction of sparks or fire.
And overly cautious people that we are, I and the wife wondered whether such an unwanted calamity could happen in our very neck of the woods, Tracy, in Northern California. We see hills and mountains to the west, openly bald-headed and coated brown by dead flora. And we have the added ingredient of gusty winds, too. The Altamont Pass being home to thousands of wind turbines that rely on steady streams of winds to turn them on.
And of course, it could happen. As a matter of fact, it has happened in the recent past and we used to see unmistakable signs of their aftermath as evidenced by easily distinguishable blackened spots while driving through the pass after reading or hearing about them.
While cognizant of its gale-force destructive powers, we like to think of the wind in more benign, soothing and constructive ways. The wind as fatherly image blowing on lifeless sails of ships carrying homeward-bound sailors to familiar ports, or so our early children’s books used to fancifully regale us with.
The Altamont Pass which actually knifes through a range of stretched-out hills of comparative height and ominously called Diablo Range, is precisely one such location where wind energy has been harnessed to provide an alternate source to electrify our homes, our businesses and industries. The pass and several other locations in the state proudly define the area’s worthy contributions to the country’s resolve to tap other sources of energy to satiate our ever-growing needs for power. A commendable drive toward possibly independence from foreign energy sources such as oil.
Geographically the pass could be considered a defining landmark for Tracy because it separates it from its western neighbors. Like the daring riding adventures in the Western movies of the past, the narrow mountain pass with its maze of winding uphill and downhill grade have to be carefully negotiated to arrive in Tracy from the west. And would be the only straight and direct way to Tracy, of course, discounting the other surface roads and the original Altamont Pass Road which can be taken as alternate routes when not using Interstate 580.
But beyond this romanticized depiction of the pass, the Altamont Pass is stellar because of the pivotal role it plays in the generation of wind energy for the state.
According to the California Energy Commission, the pass is one of several major wind energy resource areas in the state, the rest are: Solano, Pacheco Pass, Tehachapi Ranges, and San Gorgonio Pass.
On this list two are located in Northern California, namely Solano and Altamont.
Three sites on the list, namely Altamont, San Gorgonio Pass and Tehachapi Ranges, comprise 95 percent of the commercial wind energy generated in the state. And to understand the global impact of this production, this represents 11% of the world’s wind- generated energy.
And to reduce further to terms we can more readily relate to:
“With an average California household using 6,500 kWh of electricity per year, 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of annual electricity generation from wind resource in the state provides electricity sufficient to power over 530,000 homes.”
Altamont alone generates 1.071 gWh from 4,788 wind turbines (2003 figures), making it the world’s largest wind farm in terms of number of turbines. These turbines are spread out on hilltops stretching some 15 kilometers in diameter, many of them visible from the highway.
So gusty winds are not necessarily bad all the time. At the very least like most fortuitous events in nature, they are indifferent.
And loosely speaking if it is any consolation, Southern California’s ongoing wind-caused losses may somehow be offset by Northern California’s benefits from wind-generated energy resources.
Credits for Altamont panoramic picture.