Friday, June 26, 2009 | 2:02 a.m.
SEARCHLIGHT — Duke Energy representative Robert Charlebois began Thursday afternoon’s public meeting on the company’s plans to build a large wind farm here by trying to make clear to residents that he had learned from earlier rejections.
“I remember the first meeting walking out with the unambiguous understanding that our original proposal was completely unacceptable to the town,” Charlebois said of a meeting in January on the wind project. “We went back to the drawing board.”
If Charlebois had hoped to win over residents’ support with a new plan, it didn’t work out that way.
In a nearly unanimous chorus, Searchlight residents came out loudly against the latest iteration of a planned wind project near their town at a community meeting held in the town’s community center and museum hall.
“I think little Searchlight is being thrown under the bus,” said Judy Bundorf, a part-time Searchlight resident and the first of many at the meeting to speak out against the wind farm.
Duke Energy wants to develop up to 370 megawatts of wind energy in the area, through 140 wind turbine generators that each stand about 400 feet tall.
Residents said they were concerned the plans would negatively impact wildlife and affect their views, and several in the crowd were skeptical that renewable energy could be cost-effective.
The public meeting was held as part of the process from the Bureau of Land Management to review the application to impact 600 acres — 200 permanently — of federal desert land near the town of 800 about 60 miles south of Las Vegas.
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who said he favors the project, led the proceedings.
About 65 people attended the meeting, and over the course of two hours, a good portion spoke out against the project.
“I moved to Searchlight because I love birds,” said Robert Shawn, who said he recently watched a bald eagle fly near his Yucca plants. “Do we need to ruin their home? Their home is in Searchlight. There’s the whole entire state. I know it’s pretty windy everywhere you go.”
Representing the company, Charlebois explained that Duke Energy had carefully considered that the land around Searchlight was the most feasible place to construct Southern Nevada’s first wind farm.
At Thursday’s meeting, Charlebois was joined at the podium by several representatives of the Bureau of Land Management, who assured residents they would carefully review the impact of the wind turbines on desert tortoises, sheep, birds, and other animals and plants before deciding whether to approve the project.
Searchlight’s wind farm presents an early test of renewable energy developments on public lands in Nevada. Many projects are still in the earlier stages of the time-consuming BLM approval process.
The Obama administration has said that speeding up that process is a top priority because it believes renewable energy developments will help reduce dependence on foreign oil and curb global warming. BLM will not sacrifice careful environmental review of the projects, officials insist.
National and local environmental groups have largely supported sacrificing certain lands for the purpose of slowing climate change, and Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Scot Rutledge represented that view at the meeting Thursday.
Nonetheless, steep hurdles — including concerns about sacrificing desert lands and aesthetics — are likely to persist, particularly among residents who live near the planned projects.
Several meeting participants spoke with fondness of their views of nearby Spirit Mountain, which they said they fear will become adulterated by the tall wind turbines spinning rapidly nearly every day and night.
Charlebois said the company had taken negative comments at an earlier meeting in January into account and was scaling back the project from an initial 180 towers surrounding the town to 140 towers to the east and south of Searchlight. Charlebois said he expects to revise that to reflect plans for even fewer towers soon.
Yet at the meeting, just one Searchlight resident spoke in favor of the project.