Should America’s next president — Barack Obama or John McCain — need some practical, on-the-ground advice about wind energy? They could do worse than talking to Solvang resident John Stahl.

The idea for the Lompoc wind farm project, which will place turbines that generate energy for 50,000 homes on windy hillsides above San Miguelito Canyon, was Stahl’s — a thought that sprouted out of his recollection of the canyon being awfully windy.

The 65-turbine project, to be located on 3,000 acres of leased land from local ranching families, passed the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission unanimously in early October.

It has since been appealed by the California Department of Fish and Game and a neighboring property owner, and will likely be heard by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in December.

 

“I would expect the board of supervisors would approve it unanimously also,” Stahl said recently one morning over coffee.

But the seven-year process of getting the project approved demonstrates that there needs to be changes in the procedures, particularly in California, if renewable energy is to realistically be successful, he said.

 

 

Two more farms

Stahl also is working on two wind farms in Central Oregon that are larger in size than the Lompoc project. In contrast, those projects will likely take 18 months to get approved, he estimated. At least one year of bird traffic around the project site must be studied to make sure there would not be adverse impacts to wildlife.

After graduating from Lompoc High School in 1960, Stahl bounced around the state to attend college and eventually finished his studies at the University of Hawaii, where he also worked on building the second high-rise hotel to be constructed along Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

After coming back to Santa Barbara County, he worked for the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was living at Devereux Point, on the northern coastal edge of Isla Vista, when the 1969 oil spill took place that galvanized the environmental movement.

 

After hearing about the blow-out from Union Oil’s Platform A from TV news, Stahl could see the slicks on the water offshore. By the next morning, the Devereux Slough was covered with oil and the carcasses of dead birds floated in the water.

He became a founding member of the Community Environmental Council, and as an administrative assistant to county supervisor Bill Wallace, worked in opposition to placement of a natural gas importing station at Point Conception.

But Stahl didn’t adopt an anti-oil stance and after leaving government work, he worked on securing the permits for an oil pipeline from the Gaviota Coast to Texas, and on a slant-drilling project from Gaviota in the mid-1990s.

Today, Stahl is OK with the idea of offshore drilling, although he sees renewable energy as the country’s future.

“I think the technology for offshore oil has come quite a ways,” he said.

 

 

The wind farm

Stahl got the idea for a local wind project about eight years ago, when the state was in the throes of a utility crisis that involved rolling summer blackouts

First, he approached the people at Vandenberg Air Force Base to see if they might be interested in hosting turbines there. But it became clear that the glacial pace of government would make that infeasible, he said.

He remembered that he’d graduated high school with some people whose families owned ranch land adjacent to Vandenberg. But it took time to convince the seven participants in the project that a wind farm was a good idea, he said.

At one point, they took a trip to a wind farm in Tehachapi, where they stood and had a conversation underneath one of the spinning turbines.

 

“That took a lot of their fears away,” Stahl recalled.

Acciona, a worldwide alternative energy company is developing the $200 million project in Lompoc and will run the wind farm on the leased land. The landowners, including Leroy Scolari, plan to use the profits from leasing their land to Acciona to continue their ranching operations.

“This project will help maintain this land in that use for years to come,” said Scolari. “The wind is perpetual. We have a very good supply there and it should be put to good use for our county.”

The reason the project has been so long in the making has been because of the necessary studies to determine how wildlife would be affected, plus the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and county Environmental Impact Report process.

 When all was said and done, the majority of the dozens of speakers at the hearing for the project spoke enthusiastically about it and urged the planning commission to approve it.

“This could put us on the map. Lompoc could be the green capital of Santa Barbara County,” said Joyce Howerton, the former Lompoc mayor.

 

“Santa Barbara County loves green power, but its way too time consuming to get a permit,” Stahl observed.

He is currently seeking a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to address the California Department of Fish and Game’s appeal of the project.

Fish and game has asked for a large conservation easement on additional property to be part of the mitigations for the wind farm.

Stahl said he may suggest to the governor that the state should expedite the CEQA process for green energy development.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become more of a national priority (to develop wind energy),” he said.

 

Reach Leah Etling at letling@syvjournal.com