The first big renewable energy project planned for Coconino County cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night when county supervisors narrowly approved it.
NextEra Energy, the country’s largest owner of wind farms, will next need state clearance before it can break ground this summer about 13 miles north of Williams.
The 62 turbines would be spread across 100 square miles and generate enough power for about 7,500 households on average, though they could produce enough for 23,000 when operating at peak capacity.
Coconino County Supervisors were divided over the project, which has been adamantly opposed by dozens of neighboring property owners.
They voted 3-2 to approve it at 11 p.m. Tuesday, after nearly 13 hours of hearings Monday and Tuesday nights.
Supervisor Carl Taylor was the most clearly in favor, stating that those who bought property did not also purchase rights to views across the adjoining private properties for life.
He added that these kinds of projects needed to get started if the county was serious about its stated goals of keeping family ranches intact and fighting climate change.
“I think there’s a fallacy in believing that you bought a viewshed when it belongs to someone else who could break it up or do whatever with it,” he said, adding that he would support such a project in his own neighborhood.
IMPACT ON NEIGHBORS CONSIDERED
Supervisors Liz Archuleta voted no, even after lobbying successfully for more than an hour for lighting for the turbines that would be triggered only when planes were flying over.
“My job was to get it to the point where it had the least impact on the neighbors,” she said later, in explaining her vote.
The turbines would be located at least 1 mile from the nearest property, which is somewhat farther than other wind farms have typically been set back.
The noise is expected to approximate the volume of the sound of falling leaves.
The wind farm is in Supervisor Matt Ryan’s district, and he said he just couldn’t agree that it fit with the rural goals as written for the State Route 64 corridor.
“Quite honestly, I don’t mind looking at windmills myself,” he said, adding that it couldn’t be his place to decide that question for others when it went against land use goals for their neighborhood.
Supervisor Lena Fowler said there were unanswered questions about whether the project might affect bird and bat migration, and the supervisors spent some time adding clauses to give an advisory group more ability to suspend operations during migration periods, and asking questions of Arizona Game and Fish.
“How can we study the natural state of a species when we’ve already disturbed it?” Fowler asked.
She and Supervisor Mandy Metzger each voted in favor of the project, along with Taylor.
DEVELOPER: DELAY INFEASIBLE
Linda Webb headed up neighborhoods opposed to the project, and she urged supervisors to delay a decision, allow time for more study, move turbines farther away, and require developers to compensate property owners for any decline in property values resulting from the turbines.
“You’re being asked to make decisions that are going to affect the future of this county for a long time,” she said.
She vowed more legal action if her attorney deems it feasible.
Waiting another year or setting a 2-mile buffer would kill the project because NextEra Energy has an agreement to produce power for Arizona Public Service this year, a company representative responded.
“We need to have wind farms like these… it’s part of energy independence,” said project manager Matt Gomes, citing his military background and deaths of his friends in Iraq.
The county’s planning and zoning commission had unanimously approved the wind project.
SUSTAINING THE RANCH
Mike Macauley’s family has owned the private lands north of Williams where the wind farm is proposed since 1870.
He leases the land to cattle and sheep ranchers to help pay his property taxes, insurance and fees to the state land department (his land is checkerboarded with state land).
Approached by NextEra for wind testing and then development, Macauley said receiving payments for wind energy and having a ranch to hand down to his three kids seemed preferable to further selling and subdividing his ranch to pay day-to-day bills, as one of his grandfathers had done before dying a poor man.
RENEWABLE ENERGY PUSHED
State interest in renewable energy is being pushed partly by an Arizona Corporation Commission requirement that utilities obtain 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.
Arizona Public Service bought power from a wind farm in New Mexico in 2009, it reported to the Corporation Commission.
The supervisors previously approved another wind farm east of Flagstaff that has not been built.
Wind farms have also been proposed north of Seligman and near Cameron, but failed to launch.
The county is considering whether it should pass an ordinance to designate locations for other wind farms, and Ryan reluctantly said one might be needed.
NextEra has declined to discuss other possible projects, but it is testing the wind across hundreds of thousands of acres in northern Arizona, including some north of the San Francisco Peaks.