GREEN RIVER – A new proposal to build a 72-turbine wind farm on the south side of Aspen Mountain was presented at the Sweetwater County Commission meeting on Tuesday. The project is sponsored by enXco.
Northwest Region director Gary Probst said the towers would not be visible from Rock Springs, Green River, most parts of Interstate 80 or from White Mountain, where another wind power project has been proposed. The earlier project was criticized because the turbines could be seen from Rock Springs.
Probst said the enXco wind farm would not be visible from its north because it would be behind Aspen Mountain.
However, several commissioners said it would be located in an area full of wildlife.
Project Manager Nate Sandvig said they wanted input from the commissioners and to establish a relationship as they move forward.
He said they operate “quite a few wind farms in Wyoming.”
David Phillips, the project’s permitting manager, said he is with the engineering firm CH2M Hill that permitted almost every operating wind farm in Wyoming.
Communications specialist Sarah Flitner said, “We want to do it right from the start. We are doing studies now to identify sensitive resources in the project area”
She said the goal is to avoid, minimize or mitigate impact.
Sandvig said they looked at building on White or Mellor mountains but identified potential problems, like turbines on White Mountain being visible from Rock Springs. He said the proposed Aspen Mountain would be 1.5 miles from the nearest residence.
The project would involve 72 wind turbines on 12.46 acres of land in a checkerboard pattern. Sandvig said they would generate up to 250 megawatts and the company has an interconnection agreement with PacifiCorp for 150 megawatts.
When asked about the two different figures, Sandvig said they are working with estimates and the final figure would likely depend on the type of turbine chosen.
He said they would like to use County Road 27, also known as Aspen Mountain Road, to access the site and would work with the county on a maintenance agreement.
Since they are working on with transmission lines with PacifiCorp, he said the company would provide an energy gateway to avoid large, long-distance transmission lines.
Sandvig also said the company is drafting an environmental impact statement, where the county will have opportunity to provide input, along with studies on wildlife, cultural and recreational impact.
“We hope to have preliminary results by our public scoping meeting, which we hope will be in early 2012,” Sandvig said.
LOCATION AND IMPACT
Commission Chairman Wally Johnson asked if the site would be on the back of Aspen Mountain.
Sandvig said it would, though some of the transmission lines might be visible from locations such as Interstate 80 and several spots farther south, including Highway 430, the top of Aspen Mountain and the Three Patches picnic area.
Commissioner Reid West said he was concerned about wildlife impact.
“A lot of hunters use that area,” he said.
He said many animals graze and cross the area like elk, deer and antelope.
“There are thousands of antelope up on that flat,” West said.
Phillips said he is a certified wildlife biologist and follows wildlife interactions with wind farms.
“That area is very important from a big game standpoint, and there are important sage grouse areas to the southwest of it. There’s a lot of work that’s been done to look at those issues, but not a lot of strong conclusions yet,” Phillips said.
Phillips said his firm’s study suggests elk around one wind farm did not change their long-term habits.
“(Pronghorns) respond initially to construction activity but then seem to adapt and go about their business,” Phillips said.
He said the issues would require a lot of attention in the environmental impact study.
Probst said they would use underground power lines inside the wind farm site, but not beyond. Instead, he said they would come down past the shoulder of the mountain to the Firehole substation.
West asked how many cubic yards of concrete would be needed per tower foundation and how many truckloads to transport it.
Probst said he could not answer the question because it would depend on the type of foundation.
When West asked for a range, Sandvig said it could take 12 to 40 truckloads per foundation, depending on the type.
LIGHTS ON A HILL
Commissioner John Kolb said the prospect of a herd of aircraft avoidance lights on 72 towers “probably won’t give me a warm fuzzy feeling inside.”
“I understand you can handle those lights differently, by radar if necessary, but those lights would become a problem at night,” Kolb said.
Sandvig said the Federal Aviation Administration has taken measures to minimize the amount of lights required, including the use of a perimeter system.
“You do not have to have lights on every single turbine,” he said.
Kolb asked why they are not thinking of more powerful turbines, in the two or three megawatt range.
“It boils down to the suitability of the turbine at the site,” Sandvig said.
He said as they work with turbine vendors, they may change estimates to fit the project.
“I wish you’d be more specific about what it actually is going to be,” Kolb said. “They always end up being something else at the end, though within the scope.”
Kolb said renewable energy has received federal subsidies and if the federal government goes broke, the county might be stuck with the foundations.
Probst said, “We have never and will not build a project that is not backstopped by contract commitments. When we finance a project, it is on the strength of commitments, or we sell the project. We are different from most of our competitors in that historically, we built most of our projects and have sold them. We’ve done a lot of projects where we sold it, and we provide (operations and maintenance) for those folks.”
Kolb asked about backup power since wind power is intermittent due to changes in the wind.
Probst said it would likely come from natural gas, though PacifiCorp has coal, natural gas and petroleum-fired resources.
Kolb said gas turbines do not do as well at higher elevations.
Probst said he agreed but there are other technologies that can fill the gaps efficiently in higher elevations.
Commissioner Don Van Matre said he was concerned about preserving the land.
“Once they are gone, they’re gone. That’s a big challenge I face – how will this affect my backyard? Most of us that live here really love this county. I will be looking at things in depth. I want to preserve as much as we can of what we have,” Van Matre said.
Kolb said it is difficult to manage county issues with only part of the picture.
Johnson said wind towers, unlike mines or wells, are likely to be around forever. He asked how enXco plans to ensure it has money to remove them, if it is necessary.
Probst said the equipment would have salvage value and a bond is purchased to cover decommissioning.
West asked how inflation could impact a bond.
Probst said the county will have to be absolutely satisfied with the way the bond is designed.
Commissioner Gary Bailiff said most people would prefer this new site over White Mountain, though questions would remain.
“The vast majority of Rock Springs residents will be much more pleased with this location than on White Mountain, but this area has a lot of recreation. It’s a fine hunting area. But I’m much happier with this than I would be with White Mountain,” he said.
Rock Springs Grazing Association President Don Schramm said he is in favor of the project. Some of the group’s members own land under the proposed site.
Johnson cautioned wind farm proponents and said the project would be extremely controversial in Sweetwater County.
“It would be unfair of us to mislead you and think all is well. There will be a tremendous pushback on this. I appreciate your openness with us,” he said.
“I appreciate your candor. I appreciate that your perspective is that you want to steward these resources for your community,” Flitner said. “We want to build the best project possible, if that is what happens here.”