“Some just don’t like change and these people didn’t want change.”   — Shirley Paolini

If you are anywhere near Rio Vista or the Diablo Range in the California Delta you can’t help but notice slowly rotating wind turbines, tall and white, contrasting with the clear-blue sky, dissolving into the ethereal Delta fog, or at night with blinking red lights letting pilots know that these moving parts are seriously high. These are not new; I remember them sprouting in the 1970’s by the hundreds from the hills near the Altamont Pass between Tracy and Livermore. Those you see today are much larger, spaced farther apart, much more efficient, and a lot friendlier to wildlife than their predecessors.

Wind turbines dissolve into the ethereal Delta fog west of Rio Vista.

While it sounds romantic to call them ‘windmills’ it’s really more accurate to refer to them as wind turbines, or just turbines.

Named for John Bird who built a wharf on the Montezuma Slough in 1869, Birds Landing, population just over a hundred now, sits nestled snugly amid about 700 turbines that bedeck the Montezuma Hills. With the last turbine building contracts ending a few years ago, and all the construction crews gone, this has become a quiet place.

“Wasn’t always that way,” says Shirley Paolini, 90, from behind the bar of her tavern, established in 1932 and known locally as Shirley’s place or ‘The Tavern’. “Yes, it’s a tavern”, she says. “I didn’t want to tell anybody I worked in a bar.” 

Shirley Paolini talks about the wind turbines that so prolifically adorn the local Montezuma Hills.

She and her late husband originally located here from Texas in 1951 when he found work hauling cattle. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson appointed Paolini the Postmaster of Birds Landing. She simultaneously ran the tavern with her husband while managing the postoffice until she retired from that job in 2001. She remembers the surrounding hills with no mechanical adornments. She also remembers some squabbles among local people about the new technology that was coming their way. 

Just a few of the over 700 wind turbines sprouting from the Montezuma Hills south of Rio Vista.

In the busiest of times during the turbine building boom, the tavern would fill past capacity almost every day at quitting time. Friday and Saturday nights the joint was jumping with men from all over the country bringing in their guitars and other instruments — a ‘hootenanny’ ensued. “Those nights were really fun”, says Paolini, adding, “I was spoiled.”

Older turbines that have been mostly phased out in favor of  taller, more efficient models. Note the lattice construction of the towers that birds liked to perch on. Altamont Pass, 1993.

These days there are the occasional motorcycle poker runs, locals, and wayward photographers looking to quench a parched throat and hear what the proprietor of Shirley’s Tavern thinks of all these two-hundred to four-hundred foot tall machines whirling around her night and day. The beer was cold and the conversation came easily, like between old friends. And you don’t get scolded for dropping peanut shells on the floor. It may be mandatory here. 

Turbine companies lease the small footprint of land for the turbines while leaving lots of space for this safflower crop to grow around them.  Bird’s Landing Road near Highway 12, 2016.

Things are slow now so she recently decided to drum up some business and put the word out that she was rustling up some liver and onions. She got so many takers that she had to scramble to find enough liver to feed the masses. Paolini did not expect that many people would want liver and onions. She finally got home at an exhausted 8:30pm. “Pays to advertise,” she winked.  

“I think they’re majestic, I just think they’re adorable. There were some people at the first town hall meeting who were livid – said it takes away from the looks of the hills.  Some just don’t like change and these people didn’t want change. Well, I don’t think they’re ugly. And they don’t interfere at all with the farmer’s job. Some say they make noise. Maybe sometimes in the middle of a quiet still night I’ll take Annie (her brindle cattle dog) for a walk and I can hear a low slow whoosh, whoosh. That’s noise? My washing machine kicks in higher than that! When people started learning more about the turbines and land owners started getting lease deals, well, things started calming down about then.”

Old with the new – same technology just re-purposed for today’s energy needs. Birds Landing Road, 2016.

Newer designs have greatly improved the wildlife endangerment issue. The earlier pedestals were lattice construction and birds liked to roost on them, causing them to fly into the rapidly moving blades. The pedestals now are tubular so birds can’t land on them and the newer blades turn much more slowly. However, birds don’t see like us. Since they are hunting they tend to focus on what’s below them rather than what’s ahead. So, no matter how the towers are marked or how much slower the blades now turn, birds will still occasionally fly into them. Many fewer birds these days are being harmed by the turbines and research is ongoing to further improve that record. Studies indicate that many more birds are now killed annually by flying into buildings than the newer turbines.

Author’s parting thought: Opinions on these devices are many and varied but I think they’re dynamic kinetic sculptures. They’re almost hypnotic when viewed close enough to appreciate their incredible size and low hum of the slowly rotating blades. And they produce a cleaner brand of energy than alternatives. I like them. My hat’s off to the people who have staked their money and careers on not only inventing a greener way to give us what we take for granted — energy to live comfortably — but for continually finding ways to improve the technology. And for looking at an ancient device, the windmill, and re-purposing it for more than just pumping water out of the ground; re-purposing it to efficiently produce something we desperately need and yet take for granted. That takes imagination, forward thinking and courage. Oh, and they make pretty pictures sometimes, too.

Kinetic sculptures line the Montezuma Hills near Birds Landing under the hot afternoon sun.

* The phrase, “Tilting at Windmills” originated in an episode of the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  It means to fight an imaginary enemy.

Two of the approximately 700 wind turbines in the Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista.