BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A California utility was barred Monday from canceling its power purchase contract with the owners of a Montana wind farm in a dispute over the project's potential threat to golden eagles.
Montana District Judge Brenda Gilbert granted a temporary restraining order blocking San Diego Gas & Electric Co. from canceling the contract pending a Feb. 14 hearing on the matter.
The Livingston judge acted at the request of the U.S. subsidiary of NaturEner, a Spanish wind power company that developed the 189-megawatt Rim Rock wind farm near Cut Bank.
Gilbert's order does not appear to prevent SDG&E from backing out of a separate 2012 contract in which it pledged to invest $285 million in the project.
The San Diego utility contends NaturEner misrepresented the risks posed by Rim Rock's 126 turbines for a nearby cluster of golden eagles.
SDG&E claimed in court filings that NaturEner understated those risks in order to induce the utility to invest in the deal. In a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in December, the utility sought to cancel the 20-year contract under which it was buying renewable energy credits from NaturEner.
But after NaturEner filed its own suit in Montana, Gilbert on Monday ordered SDG&E to continue making payments to NaturEner until attorneys for the two sides appear in her court.
NaturEner has said SDG&E is using the eagle issue as a pretext for getting out of a contract it no longer finds favorable. The company alleges the utility is suffering from "buyer's remorse" as the cost of renewable energy has fallen from when the two sides struck a deal almost two years ago.
The wind farm is in an area with seven golden eagle nests and dozens of other raptors, including Montana's densest concentration of ferruginous hawks, according to Montana Audubon.
NaturEner previously moved 25 of its towers to be farther from nesting areas after complaints from the conservation group that the project was in the wrong place. The company also says it uses radar and on-site spotters to watch out for eagles and other large birds, and can shut down its turbines if a collision is foreseen.