Interstate 580 runs from the California’s North Bay through to the Central Valley. Along the way, it goes over the crest of Altamont Pass and hills that turn golden in summer and lush green with the winter rains.
Take Exit 63 and you’ll end up Jess Ranch Rd., a nice place to park and take in the surrounding greenery, the whoosh of the freight trucks barreling over the highway, and towering wind turbines that spin lazily. The giants of Altamont are the modern wind turbines we’re familiar with, set on tall steel towers painted white and blades made of composite materials. Many of today’s modern wind farms there stand on the graves of wind farms past. Some of the older turbines are still scattered among the hills, the walking dead of a wind rush that happened in the early 1980s only to be undone by Reaganomics and the rise of climate denial. The story of Altamont is as much a story of what is as what could have been.
The world is in a climate crisis today that requires a vast restructuring of our economy to run on clean energy. But in the 1970s and 1980s, there was also a reason for the world to consider switching to clean energy. The crises driven by the sudden rise in oil prices after countries in the Middle East put up an embargo on exports revealed a weakness in the global economy. Geopolitics coupled with a growing frustration over the monopolies utilities held led to an outburst of new federal and state policies, tax credits, and investments aimed at achieving energy independence, largely through renewables.
Jimmy Carter signed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act in 1978, aimed among other things, to undercut utilities’ monopoly by encouraged distributed power generation and more energy efficiency, both of which would in turn reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, the Carter administration called for 20% of all electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2000, a landmark first-ever clean energy target for the U.S. Two years later, the first wind farm in the world popped up, a smattering of 20 turbines on New Hampshire’s Crotched Mountain that eventually came down two years later due in part to lack of a permanent investor.
In California, though, the investment barrier dropped and made it ground zero for wind energy. Governor Jerry Brown offered a 25% tax credit for wind energy. The state also conducted a review of how much wind energy could be generated, eyeing enough sites to generate 13,000 megawatts of electricity. That sparked a rush to California’s hills akin the 1849 Gold Rush.
Companies sprung up overnight to mine for wind. Leah Stokes, an energy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has written extensively on the early years of wind, said the culture was more “weirdo hippies” and less buttoned corporations like the wind turbine manufacturers of today.
“These were people who were interested in technology that didn’t really exist and mainstream utilities didn’t think would be viable,” she said.
Phillip Warburg, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, was slightly more diplomatic, calling a number of the manufacturers “backyard tinkers.”
That’s not to say it was all peace and love. Fayette Manufacturing, one of the early pioneers on Altamont Pass, was run by a former CIA energy analyst. The company produced a extremely 1980s promotional video touting its work on Jess Ranch, the namesake of the road off Exit 63.
Turbines vaguely resembled the ones of today in that most had three blades. But beyond that, there was a wide variety of designs. Stokes described the ethos as “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” They were much smaller, usually constructed solely of steel. Some turbines were designed to capture downwind and some upwind. Some looked like egg beaters, using a rotor style known as a Darrieus turbine. Turbines would frequently crash and burn, with pieces flying off or failing because they couldn’t handle the stiff winds of Altamont Pass. Because so little was known about siting or the impact on wildlife, the wind farms also led to widespread bird deaths, which still tarnishes the reputation of wind turbine today despite largely solving the issue. It was the Wild West.
“There was a lot of trial and error and probably more error than trial,” Warburg, who has written the book on wind (literally), said.
Nevertheless, the pass was producing half of all wind energy globally by 1985. At the same time, the U.S. government was also pouring research money into turbines that were much more robust and capable of generating more electricity. Warburg’s book said one estimate pegged R&D investments into large 1 to 3 megawatt turbines at $350 million, or three-quarters of all U.S. wind research money from 1974 to 1992. The vision for those turbines was much more like those we know today; Stokes said increasing blade size can allow turbines to “cubically increases the power generated.” But those efforts and the tinkers of Altamont Pass faced a sudden and unexpected demise.
The nascent industry all came crashing down in the Reagan years. When Ronald Reagan became president, he famously took solar panels off the roof of the White House. That was symbolic of his approach to clean energy, and the beginning of making it a political wedge. PURPA was passed with bipartisan support, including Illinois Republican Senator Charles Percy who Stokes noted wanted to pass it into law to avoid another oil crisis and because he viewed renewables as the future. In contrast, Reagan went all in on fossil fuels and nuclear power, slashing budgets for R&D for renewable energy. George Deukmejian, the Republican California governor that followed Jerry Brown, did the same to tax incentives for wind energy. In the years after the Reagan revolution, general Republican hostility to clean energy and addressing climate change has only hardened.
That left the turbines at Altamont Pass and in other locations across California such a as San Gorgonio and Tehachapi passes to, in some cases, fall into disrepair as companies that built them went belly up. Stokes said the “small turbines were great for their time and innovative globally. Those things still hang around like ghosts of early renewables.” Their steel frames and siting make them fairly easy to spot next to the sleek wind turbines of today, which have realized the 1980s R&D efforts and have massive blades that sweep large areas and generate more electricity.
“The noticeable difference between those wind farms and the wind farms that have been built more recently is that these are chock-a-block very closely positioned relative to each other, wind farms that you’d never build today again in terms of efficiency, but also in terms of avian hazards,” Warburg said.
The tinkerer ethos has definitely also disappeared as large companies vie for the wind crown. Companies like Danish giant Vestas survived the 1980s collapse of California wind and are still around today. Many other, though, didn’t make it. The old wind mills are also slowly being removed and sent to scrap while new turbines rise in their place, often commissioned by the utilities the originals were designed to displace.
Correction: 10/31/20, 12:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Vestas is a Danish company, not a Dutch company.