Google Buys 43MW of Wind Energy, Saves Birds Too

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Altamont Pass Wind Farm was one of the earliest wind farms created in the U.S. By Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz/Shutterstock

Hot on the heels of Apple's huge California solar power purchase, Google announced on Wednesday that it would enter a 20-year power purchase agreement to buy the electricity from 43 megawatts (MW) of wind turbines at Altamont Pass in California. This is significant, and not just because it marks another huge renewables investment from the tech giant. (Google has invested big in wind before, not to mention solar and smart homes.)

Saving birds

The Altamont Pass Wind Farm, which began construction in 1981 in California, was one of the first large-scale wind energy projects built in America. And while it has become an icon for clean energy, it has also been cited by anti-renewables activists and bird conservationists for excessive bird deaths. In fact, some claim that Altamont's 2,000-5,000 bird kills almost single-handedly fueled the "turbines kill birds" meme. So alongside the sheer size of Google's wind power purchase, the fact that it will help Florida-based developer NextEra Energy invest in newer, larger, and more carefully sited wind turbines will be a significant boon for conservationists.

Here's how Mercury News describes the proposed upgrades:

A 2004 study found that the turbines killed thousands of eagles, hawks, owls and other birds each year. That problem is expected to lessen with the new machines, which will be more carefully situated, far fewer in number and spin at higher elevations. NextEra's new project, called Golden Hills Wind, lies just south of I-580 and is part of a much larger initiative to decommission more than 4,000 turbines on the Altamont and repower the hills with up to 280 more bird-friendly machines.

From conversations with a relative who studies wind turbines and bird migration, I understand that alongside the old turbines' size and numbers, the design of their structure was also a major bird hazard. Because they were mounted on a pilon-like scaffold, they provided an ideal roosting place for raptors and other large birds.
Sending a message to the markets
Besides saving birds, the Google announcement is another sign that clean energy is no longer an outlier, but rather a safe and commercially viable way for businesses to lessen their environmental impact and lock in stable, long-term energy pricing for their operations too. The 43MW purchase from the Altamont Pass farm will be more than enough to power Google's nearby headquarters, furthering its commitment to move to 100 percent renewable energy.

Whether it's Apple, IKEA, Microsoft or (finally!) Amazon, the list of big businesses making big clean energy plays grows longer, almost by the day. And with some of their largest, most profitable customers unplugging from the grid, traditional utilities may need to evolve if they want to stay viable.