Driving through Monticello, Utah, approaching from the south and eastern flank up the long shoulder of an ancient mountain, Apajo Peak, over the years since the ’90’s when I would explore the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico, and north to Moab in eastern Utah, I came to get to know the landscape to the point that when you come around a corner, you have certain expectations.
On this trip, not having come through in over a year, my mind was blown away by the practically alien sight of giant white wind turbines in the unlikely location on the ridge line of a Utah (Utah!) mountainside. After having just spent time photographing some of the most polluting coal mines and power facilities in the West, my mental state soared with the sight of this new, “clean” energy source. (In reality, wind turbines could be considered one of the least “dirty” energy sources, because no energy source comes without some form of environmental impact- more on that later. Still, wind turbines are nearly as clean as it gets!)
Wow! Renewable energy is coming online so fast! In a seemingly random and rural place like this! In such a conservative state! Screw my plans to spend a rest day in Moab, I’m hanging out in Monticello, Utah today! First stop… find information at the tourist visitor center in town. Other than as a pit stop, mining information from locals here was not very helpful. The only person there when I arrived was ambivalent, when asked what she thought of the new turbines. She said she didn’t care one way or the other. Okay… and where is the rest room, I asked?
Just before leaving, another worker arrived at the desk, and I thought I would give another local a shot at my question. “What do you think about the turbines?” I was asked in reply, as if to gauge whether I was friend or foe before giving a real answer to my question. Cautious and protective, I remember thinking of this second woman. She had an opinion. I proceeded…
“I think they’re great,” I told her. I was sounding a little like Tony the Tiger. But with my cheesy answer she confided that she thought they were beautiful, “they look like giant flowers,” she said excitedly!
Looking at the first woman, I could tell that her seemingly nonchalant and slightly prickly answer to my question earlier was, in fact, a learned response to her otherwise disapproving opinion of the turbines. She was keeping the peace, and knew a negative response in the setting of a town visitor center was not setting the right mood for the town, so she chose to plead the 5th in her own way.
After chatting briefly, and finding out from the first woman that they were out of descriptive brochures about the turbines, I left with a refilled water bottle from their fountain.
Arriving at the facility, called the Latigo Wind Park, oddly named after a strap used on a horse’s saddle, and owned by a less than five year old company called sPower, based out of Salt Lake City, I drove up the mountainside on a dirt road that was freshly graded, wide, with vegetation-cleared shoulders, and angled for water runoff into ditches.
Everything was, indeed, new. So new, in fact, that I never reached a gated entrance, security guard station, or any indication of any security whatsoever. What a massive difference from the two coal-fired power stations I had just come from the day before, where one guard, when asked if there were plant tours offered, looked at me like my head turned into a black hole in front of his eyes, almost laughing in the lunacy, and said, “you can’t take photos here… I know another security guard got fired for allowing that.” His demeanor switched to visible fear, if I persisted. I felt pity on the man’s situation, with a Simpsons show Burns-esque overlord, apparently.
Not so, at Latigo Wind Park. I drove up to a structure on an outcropping where there were some construction workers, and waited patiently outside my car to be approached as I watched them work. The eldest worker of the three approached, and I not only learned that they were, that very moment, putting the finishing touches on a brand new eagle spotting tower, but that I was welcome to take all the pictures I wanted. Wow! Such openness. Such transparency. Such freedom.
Now, I’m familiar, having been raised in a National Park (Yosemite), that the public cannot be trusted with full-access to everything everywhere all the time – that there are always “bad apples” that ruin the “nice things” for everyone else, and that we, collectively, tend to “love things to death” with overuse, crowds, or otherwise. So I promised to be careful and not get in anybody’s way. It was explained to me that entering the premises comes with a falling hazard from the turbines if something malfunctioned. Like a bolt the size of my head crushing my body flat. The kind of thing that a plastic helmet just makes you feel comforted by wearing, not that it provides any protection whatsoever against said industrial-strength flying murderous bolts. Again, being raised in a National Park with cliffs thousands of feet high and a child’s curiosity brings experience to know that a terminal velocity industrial sized bolt is probably not unlike a rock whizzing by my head while hiking on the side of Yosemite Valley’s cliffs… in either case, the object sounds like a bullet, and would have a worse effect on my body if it made contact. (No such situation occurred at Latigo, of course.)
Okay… danger known and accepted. Time to (carefully) explore. Having seen the eagle watch tower up close, and witnessing one of the towers shutting down over a period of about a minute or so, the construction worker told me that there were two eagle biologists on-site, monitoring for collision hazard. He pointed me in the right direction to find the lead biologist.
Finding her and introducing myself as a photographer, the lead biologist described to me how she does her job. Out there in the field, running a gasoline generator buzzing against the softly-repetitive “whoosh” of the near turbine blades to power her laptop all day long, she pointed out the program that ties into the entire grid of the Latigo Wind Farm- she can shut down any turbine that has an eagle flying near it. The company empowered her to be able to shut down turbines in one of two speeds. I had witnessed a slow shutdown, which she said she regretted choosing and probably should have chosen a fast shutdown, which takes seconds, due to the close proximity of an eagle she saw nearby.
But that’s a subjective call with several factors involved, including the potential wear and tear of repeated fast shutdowns, since the engineers have apparently said that fast shutdowns don’t come without cause for concern over time. But the eagle flew by unharmed in this case anyway (I didn’t notice it from my former position about a half-mile away).
Admirably, she has a goal of having zero (none!) eagle deaths by collision with the towers and spinning blades within the first year of operations. Apparently, as of May, so-far-so-good, with the facility opening about six months earlier in December 2015.
She described to me about how they work in the field, and that having two new shelters (she pointed out the second higher-up on the mountain side) would significantly improve their spotting ability and personal working conditions. I agreed, knowing full-well how dangerous it can be to be working in the field during thunderstorms, let alone working around an electrical generating facility on the side of a mountain during an electrical storm. She has a tough, hazardous job, while she is also constantly looking through a spotting scope or binoculars during long periods of time. She described to me that she wanted the challenge of something new, because she normally did baseline scientific studies of energy facilities before anything was constructed. She wanted to see how it all works after the facility was built, and decided to work for the first year to protect eagles.
Seeing a couple of trucks filled with engineers/maintenance workers pass by, I decided to drive up the mountain for some new angles on the turbines. Exiting that branch road of turbines later, I reached the only closed gate in my entire time there- the guys in the trucks must have closed the ranch-style gate behind them. But it wasn’t locked, and I continued on my way, closing it behind me. I explored the entire road system on the property, and knew full well that this kind of industrial development didn’t come without other impacts than just avian collisions- the roads bulldozed through the area were fragmenting habitats, disturbing hydrology and surface runoff water quality, as well as potentially introducing non-native species through seed dispersal and new animal pathways. But no form of human activity comes without an impact to the environment we are in. Not even a hiking trail.
So any discussion of energy infrastructure comes also with a discussion of levels of “acceptable” impacts. The federal government, via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, will permit a certain number of eagle deaths, called “takings,” per year of operating wind turbines. Similarly, air and water quality agencies from local to state to federal will issue permits to allow coal plants to pour pollution, toxins, known poisons, into our atmosphere and waterways. Nothing comes without an environmental cost. The common theme among all forms of energy development is: what level of impact is acceptable, putting numbers on that impact, monitoring and measuring real-world impacts, and striving to not exceed an either scientifically determined limit, usually based on the rhyming mnemonic “the solution to pollution is dilution,” or an arbitrarily decided limit.
Whatever the limit set for the number of eagle deaths permitted for the Latigo Wind Park, I like that they are striving to have a zero-hit figure by the end of the first year, the most important, for migrating eagles to learn about the new facility, and hopefully every year in operation thereafter.
If humans must have electricity, then it shouldn’t come at any cost, as is the consequence of the “infinite scream passing through nature” that coal’s legacy leaves behind. Renewable electricity, even with it’s relatively low-impact costs, is a comparatively immensely better option. Domesticated cats, power poles, buildings, and vehicles are higher causes of bird mortality than wind turbines, by a wide margin, for examples. I hope for many more wind parks like Latigo’s, and I am always ever-grateful to the engineers and biologists who are making them less and less mortal to birds, bats, and other hazards that they present.
The dusk of coal is here, as the bankruptcies, regulations, and lawsuits increase – shutting them down, while the dawn of wind begins, as their electricity prices plummet, and new wind farms, parks, and facilities crop-up like flowers in all sorts of new, unexpected locales. Like Monticello, Utah.
If you go: I recommend staying on roads identified as public, and respecting any signs and road closures that may have been put in place after my visit during their first months of operations. I notified sPower of my visit to their properties after my visit, in addition to first obtaining verbal permission by on-site staff that could be located, and later obtained ex post facto written permission to enter onto and photograph their property after two months of contract negotiations.
Over 40 selected images from the Latigo Wind Park are available for prints or license downloads for personal, business, and editorial uses at Climate Photography, with hundreds more to choose from by request. These images come with a copy of a fully-executed property release form from sPower.