There aren’t many roads or people outside the small city of Lompoc. Instead you’ll see rolling hills, cattle grazing under oak trees, and rare birds like Golden Eagles.
Soon, it may also be the home of 29 towering wind turbines. In November, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission greenlit the Strauss Wind Energy Project, which could power 30% of the homes in the county.
These turbines, however, have pitted environmentalists against each other.
“Higher levels of biodiversity than virtually any other terrestrial ecosystem in California exist in oak woodlands. And may I remind you we’re threatening to degrade that with the loss of 225 oaks,” said Audubon Society member Lori Gaskin at a recent planning commission meeting, referring to the number of oak trees that would need to get cut down for the project.
But according to Michael Chiacos from the Community Environmental Council, that’s a small price to pay when battling an even bigger killer: climate change.
“How many oaks were killed by the recent drought, by the fire, by the floods? In our county alone, that’s definitely more than hundreds of oak trees,” he said.
Opponents of the project have filed several appeals, slowing down what would be the first large-scale green energy project in the county and highlighting how far the county still has to go to reach its green goals.
In 2015, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors established a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the unincorporated county by 15% below 2007 levels by 2020.
“Unfortunately, we're not doing so great right now,” said Ashley Watkins from the county’s Sustainability Division. “Emissions are actually trending up rather than down.”
She points to longer commutes as the main culprit. A housing affordability crisis has forced people to move farther away from their jobs.
“It's the number one driver of greenhouse gas emissions in the unincorporated county as well as in the state,” said Watkins.
Like every other coastal county in Central and Southern California, Santa Barbara has struggled to fix the housing/transportation conundrum.
But producing renewable energy is something county officials can more easily control.
If approved by the Board of Supervisors later this month, the Strauss Wind Energy Project would produce about 100 megawatts of energy, or enough power to generate electricity for about 43000 homes in Northern Santa Barbara.
Currently, the energy grid there relies on a mix of sources, including natural gas and nuclear power from Diablo Canyon, which is slated to close in 2025.
But Watkins says the project won’t make much of a dent in addressing the county’s carbon footprint.
“Implementation of renewable energy really only makes up about 6% of our greenhouse reduction goals. We still have a ways to go,” she said.
She hopes to see more big projects get approved in the North County where there’s more land, and smaller projects like rooftop solar in the South County.
If the project gets approved, the turbines will be standing up tall and spinning by the end of 2020.