'Farming the wind' in the California hills

San Franciscan Alvin Duskin wants to start farming the barren, starkly beautiful hills around Altamont Pass -- harvesting the plentiful wind. It's here, on the 585-acre Walker family ranch about 50 miles east of San Francisco, that the ex-clothing manufacturer, college teacher, and environmentalist plans to build the first of what he envisions will be several hundred "windfarms" throughout the Western United States.

Mr. Duskin's company has leases for "wind rights" on about 20,000 acres, with plans to "farm" the wind at Pacheco Pass, Calif.; Goldendale, Wash.; and Cape Blanco, Ore., as well as at sites in Hawaii and Montana.

The Altamont Pass site, he says, may be delivering electricity by July or August of this year.

The geography of the Walker ranch makes it an ideal site for a windfarm. The land lies on the last line of coastal hills before California's flat, fertile Central Valley.

In the warmest months of the year, the wind whistles through the pass at 20 to 30 miles an hour, drawn east from the coast by convection currents set up in the baking-hot Central Valley farmlands. Even with little sustained wind in the four coldest months of the year, the average annual wind speed is 17 m.p.h.

Since the wind blows fiercest at Altamont during the hottest months -- and during the hottest parts of the hottest days -- windmill-generated electricity would be available when needed most for air conditioning and irrigation.

Duskin, well-known in San Francisco as a longtime crusader against high-rises , is executive vice-president of US Windpower Inc. The company was founded in 1974 by Stanley Charren and Russell Wolfe and began testing a prototype windmill in 1978.

Altamont is stage two of US Windpower's privately financed plan to "make windmills a mass-production item on an automotive scale" and, in the process, to help ease the energy crunch in a "benign" way.

Stage one -- the Crotched Mountain facility in Greenfield, N.H. --Company of New Hampshire.

Duskin says Crotched Mountain was the first windfarm built in this or any other country. He claims that installation is now cost effective and has been sold to a San Francisco investor, with US Windpower continuing to operate it under contract.

At Altamont, Duskin's firm is planning an array of 200 "next generation" windmills developed by his firm. That would make this project 10 times as big as the much-heralded Crotched Mountain farm.

Altamont's 60-foot-high windmills, says Duskin, together will produce about 40 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, which he likens to "1/100th of a nuclear power plant or a large coal plant."

Stated another way, each windmill will generate about the same amount of electricity per day as a barrel of fuel oil. By itself, that's not much of a challenge to OPEC, but US Windpower executives talk in big multiples -- hundreds of sites with hundreds of machines at each.

At Altamont, all this wind-power generation, which Duskin likes to call "another agricultural activity," will take place without disturbing the Walker family's traditional farming pursuits -- cattle grazing and dry farming of barley, wheat, and "volunteer hay." And there will be none of the pollution problems that plague other forms of power generation.

With the recent vote of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to allow wind-powered electrical generation on land zoned for agricultural use, the only remaining bureaucratic step for US Windpower is a hearing April 15 before the county zoning administrator on a conditional use permit.

No one involved expects that to be a significant hurdle because of the active support of local businesses and environmental and employment organizations.

The electricity generated by Altamont's windmills will be sold to Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the California Department of Water Resources, both of which are said to be enthusiastic about the windfarm. The utilities, by law, must buy the electricity at the cost to them of generating electricity by more conventional means.

While Duskin supervises site selection and leasing and power contracts throughout the West, Windpower president Norman Moore, a former California Litton Industries executive and supporter of environmental causes, has moved to Massachusetts to supervise the firm's manufacturing arm in Burlington. There the firm is tooling up for production of its "fourth-generation" windmills.

Duskin says the company's real business is manufacturing windmills and that "the deployment strategy is an interim step." He hopes that in five years or less the company will be able to abandon the business of setting up windfarms, having convinced investors and utility companies that power from the wind has become far more economical than oil, gas, or nuclear power.

The economies, Duskin says, come with mass production of windmills -- and the "fuel," of course, is free. US Windpower leaves it to other, larger companies to laboriously develop and ultimately deploy -- at great expense and with large government grants -- enormous and exotic new wind machines.

None of these experimental machines is commercially available. Mr. Moore has been quoted as saying, "The Department of Energy doesn't want to build anything until they've designed a 747, instead of going ahead with a Piper Cub."

Windmills, says Duskin, are "an old technology." Updated with new developments like fiberglass blades and microprocessors, they are cost effective right now.

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