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Where’s the wind farm?

Construction of the first wind farm in Campbell County was supposed to start in September, but the company building it has put the project on hold indefinitely.

The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council granted Third Planet Windpower a permit to build its Reno Junction wind farm in southern Campbell County in July. It was one of the final pieces needed in a more than two-year effort to get the go-ahead to build the wind farm. After several years of negotiations with landowners, local governments and state agencies, Third Planet was ready to get boots on the ground and turbines in the air.

But in the months following the council’s decision plans changed, said Sam Littlefield, project developer for Third Planet.

The wind industry has taken a hit across the country because the recession depressed electricity demand and the lack of consistent federal legislation supporting renewable energy, Littlefield said. And in Wyoming, there are more issues to overcome than other places.

“It is a pretty tough market right now,” Littlefield said. “We are really focused on projects we can get done this year.”

Litllefield is now finishing installing turbines in Texas before moving to a project in Nebraska, which has a signed a power purchase agreement. A deal to buy the power from the Reno Junction wind farm is one of the main reasons the project has stalled. Building the wind farm without a power purchase agreement is something the company has consistently said it would not do.

“We still haven’t sold the power,” Littlefield said. “We are still in discussions with a number of parties we think something will eventually work out with. The question is ‘when is that going to be?’”

Wyoming doesn’t have a renewable energy portfolio – mainly legislation stating that a certain percentage of the state’s energy needs are met by renewable resources. Wyoming also is not close to many states that so have energy portfolios. That means, locations in or close to states like California or Oregon are more attractive for wind farms. It makes it difficult to bring wind-generated electricity to Campbell County.

“I don’t care what anybody says publicly in Wyoming, every developer that is working there is really focusing on other markets (in states) that either have a renewable portfolio standard requirement such as California or are able to deliver to a state that has a renewable portfolio standard,” Littlefield said. “And currently, Wyoming is just not in a position to be able to do that from a transmission perspective.”

Upgrades to transmission lines in Wyoming have not been built like they were expected to because the recession depressed demand for electricity, Littlefield said. With less generation, there is less need for those upgrades in the immediate term.

But Third Planet has not given up on a wind farm in Campbell County. It just might not be the 100 turbine, $340 million project it was going to be. A smaller project with fewer turbines might be a better fit.

“There are lots of ways the landscape could shift very quickly and suddenly the Reno Junction project could be extremely competitive,” Littlefield said. “So we are keeping this thing keyed up so that we are ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

Third Planet’s industrial siting permit for the wind farm is good for three years and there is potential to extend it beyond that if need be, but Littlefield didn’t think the company would extend the permit.

“If we cannot get the project built inside of the three years the industrial siting permit allows, it might make more sense for us to get a new one,” he said.

If federal renewable energy legislation is passed or something happens that drastically increases natural gas prices wind energy could again look promising in Campbell County.