A ConocoPhillips pipeline running underneath NextEra Energy Resources’ Vasco Wind Project in the Bay Area’s Contra Costa County was punctured between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning, August 26-27, 2011. The resultant oil spill, damage and clean-up is expected to cost $50,000 to $100,000, making the crime a felony.

NextEra is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Because there is an ongoing police investigation, the company declined to comment for this report.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department is classifying the incident as felony vandalism but, once again, there is some indication the crime was perpetrated with the intention of halting the progress of wind project construction. “Based on the machinery used and the holes made, an excavator,” said Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department Director of Public Affairs Jimmy Lee, “it was quite apparent this person knew what he was doing.”

Lee said the vandalism was done in such a way that it was not possible to attribute a motive to the crime, but it was similar in its outcome to incidents in another part of California that Greentech Media has previously called eco-sabotage because, like this one, they resulted in the obstruction of wind development.

The Vasco Wind Project is, according to the Sheriff Department’s Lee, one of the wind projects undergoing “repowering” as part of the $2.5 million settlement reached between NextEra and the state of California. A total of 438 obsolete turbines and their associated infrastructure, installed as long ago as the early 1980s, are being decommissioned and 286 unused foundations are being removed.

Fifty newer, more powerful and more efficient turbines are being installed to replace them.

Repowering will increase the project’s energy output by 147 percent. Just as importantly, the replacement turbines represent far less of a threat to endangered avian species in the region such as the golden eagle. The lattice towers are being replaced with tubular towers, leaving no convenient perch from which a dangerous swoop can begin. Some turbines will be repositioned in such a way as to avoid birds’ flight paths. And newer, longer blades are designed to be less dangerous.  

Avian harms, according to ornithological authorities, are largely limited to projects in the Bay Area’s Altamont Pass and a few other wind farms that were poorly sited on avian migration routes in the earliest phase of wind’s utility-scale development. By slowing the wind farm’s repowering, the perpetrator of the vandalism at Vasco has prolonged the bird kills that compromise the wind energy industry’s image.

Previous instances of potential eco-sabotage reported on by Greentech Media involved felony destruction of meteorological towers at proposed wind farm sites in the Kern County area. Ten such incidents were documented in Kern County Sheriff reports and developer interviews.

Jeff Patterson, a consultant with Western Wind Energy Corporation and a pioneer in Kern County wind development, said he has heard of 13 such incidents of meteorological (met) tower destruction. Met towers cost between $50,000 and $100,000 each.

The continuous collection of a year of meteorological data is necessary, Patterson said, before a developer can decide whether there is a sufficient wind resource to build. Destroying the tower therefore postpones construction.

This has been interpreted as a kind of justice by some among the the vocal minority that dislike the appearance of wind turbines and have mustered a wealth of misinformation to justify what is essentially an aesthetic objection to wind development. At a town council meeting in the western Antelope Valley, one wind opponent suggested a defense fund if the perpetrator of the eco-sabotage is apprehended.

The Contra Costa County vandalism, Lee said, is “complicated,” making the attribution of a target or motive more difficult. NextEra Energy Resources, Lee said, operates the project but does not own the land. It also is not doing the repowering construction, having retained Blattner Energy to oversee the work. And, Lee said, Blattner Energy has retained a subcontractor.

In addition, according to the investigating detective -- who preferred not to be identified -- the ruptured pipeline is owned by ConocoPhillips. The Contra Costa County area was home to oil refineries before it was the site of wind farms and it remains an oil center.

Because a representative for Blattner Energy could not be reached, it is not yet clear how long the Vasco Wind Project’s repowering will be delayed by the vandalism.

The Vasco repowering is the first of a three-phase undertaking by NextEra Energy Resources in which some 2,400 turbines in the Altamont Pass will be replaced and/or shut down no later than 2015.