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NextEra Replacing Thousands of Wind Turbines to Protect Birds

NextEra Energy Resources LLC, the largest U.S. producer of wind power, agreed to replace thousands of outdated turbines in California, ending a five-year legal battle with environmental groups that claimed the spinning blades are killing endangered birds.

Under a settlement announced yesterday, NextEra, a unit of Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., said it would install newer, more efficient turbines at its Altamont Pass wind farms. Using fewer systems will pose less of a risk to wildlife, the company said.

NextEra said it is too early to tell how much the project would cost. Michael Hennessy, a wind analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said the replacement costs could reach $350 million.

“We will replace a fraction of what we take out, and we’ll still have the same capacity of about 240 megawatts,” Steve Stengel, a NextEra spokesman, said today in an interview.

The Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, east of San Francisco, is home to the world’s first commercial wind turbines, which are now more than 30 years old. All of the units NextEra operates there have capacity of hundreds of kilowatts, Stengel said, much smaller than the multimegawatt systems that are in use at most utility-scale wind farms today.

NextEra owns about 2,400 of the 5,400 turbines at Altamont Pass, Stengel said.

Bird Fatalities

A 2004 California Energy Commission study found that the Altamont Pass turbines killed between 1,800 and 4,700 birds annually. Those fatalities included as many as 1,300 raptors such as hawks, falcons, owls and federally protected golden eagles.

According to state Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office, which announced the settlement, larger, modern turbines would kill fewer birds.

Under the agreement, NextEra must replace the turbines “as soon as commercially reasonable” and in no more than three phases. The company’s goal is to complete the project by late 2015, Stengel said.

The first phase of the replacement project, about 80 megawatts, could be complete by the end of next year if NextEra receives the necessary permits by the end of February, according to the settlement. The second and third phases could be finished as early as the end of 2013 and 2014, respectively.

NextEra also agreed to pay $2.5 million in mitigation fees. Half of that will fund public-interest energy research initiatives of the California Energy Commission and the rest will support raptor habitat-creation programs at two regional park districts.

Legal Fight

The conflict dates to 2005, when several Audubon Society chapters and local environmental group Californians for Renewable Energy filed a lawsuit under the state’s Environmental Quality Act to block NextEra’s request to renew its permits for the site.

That led to a 2007 settlement that required NextEra to reduce raptor mortality by 50 percent or “implement adaptive management measures” if the goal was not met.

After NextEra failed to meet that goal, Brown stepped in to broker the new agreement.

Michael Lynes, Conservation Director with the Golden Gate Audubon Society, said in a statement that “the removal of the old turbines and replacement with properly sited turbines may reduce impacts to birds by as much as 80 percent.”

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