Drive out of California’s smoggy San Joaquin Valley, past the oil rigs planted helter-skelter in citrus groves, climb into the Tehachapi Mountains, and the future suddenly comes into view. Hundreds of gleaming white wind turbines generating carbon-free electricity carpet chaparral-covered ridges and march down into the valleys of Joshua trees that lead to the Mojave Desert.
Here in Kern County, a bastion of Big Oil and Big Agriculture, green energy has become big business. In the past 36 months the wind industry has attracted $3.2 billion in investment to a region with an unemployment rate 64% higher than the U.S. average. A multibillion-dollar transmission line under construction in the Tehachapi will carry as much as 4,500 megawatts of renewable energy, most of it from wind farms, to coastal cities. At peak output that’s the equivalent of four or five big nuclear power plants and a linchpin of California’s mandate to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. With a crucial federal tax credit set to expire at the end of 2012, developers are racing to put steel into the ground and secure a spot on the wire.
A shadow, however, is falling on the Tehachapi, cast by the nine-and-a-half-foot wingspan of a Pleistocene-born bird of uncommon intelligence and longevity … the California condor.