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BLM studies the visual impact of wind turbines on the landscape

CASPER, Wyo. – Sherry Roche’s job can involve some cold fingers, but it’s worth it.

Roche, a visual resources specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said the cold comes with the job of figuring how wind transmission lines and turbines look from varied distances and in a variety of settings.

That means she and her team working on the BLM’s twin view impact studies spend a lot of time outdoors as winter deepens.

“It takes a lot of time, let me tell you, and it’s really cold out there,” she said in a telephone interview.

The view impact study is one of several studies under way by the BLM. Others will examine the best place, from a land-use perspective, to locate wind farms.

Both the view and land-use studies are groundbreaking work.

While other studies have mapped Wyoming’s strong winds, none has mapped land-use restrictions – a critical part of deciding where to put wind farms. And while it seems that everyone has opinions on how wind turbines and power lines will look, nobody in the Unites States has ever attempted a comprehensive study to determine how such projects will affect a view, Roche said.

Picking the right place

Picking a good place for a wind farm doesn’t just involve finding a steady, strong wind and erecting wind turbines. High winds, while of course a critical part of wind farm placement, aren’t the only thing a developer needs to know.

“It could say, ‘High wind here,’ but it could be over your house, and you don’t want a turbine here,” said Beverly Gorny, a BLM spokeswoman in Wyoming.

The BLM’s study – known as the Wyoming Wind and Transmission Study – is expected to take three to four years to complete. The study will take into consideration existing land use and add another component to wind studies conducted by the federal government.

Loyd Drain is executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, a state quasi-governmental organization established to help get key infrastructure projects built. Those include a number of high-voltage power lines crucial to additional wind farm development in the state.

He said the existing federal wind studies haven’t always included some things that could hinder wind farm development, including topography, elevation, game preserves and state exclusionary areas, such as those set aside to protect sage grouse.

While the BLM’s study may narrow the locations to build wind farms, Drain believes that estimates of developable wind in the state are understated.

“There are plenty of areas that will allow developers to develop wind and still work within the confines of federal and state exclusionary areas,” he said. “There’s more than enough wind, if we can get transmission projects built to support those projects.”

Gorny said the BLM study will assist developers with exactly those projects.

“Our next step is to examine a better area on the ground and see if there is a way to help move forward with these renewable energy projects, instead of it being so speculative for folks who are trying to develop it,” Gorny said.

Measuring the view

A view is a resource, too. At least that’s the position of the BLM, which is just beginning an analysis of how well high-voltage lines can be seen from a distance and what they do to the view, or viewshed.

Such a project is new to the U.S.

“We did a fairly substantive literature review, and there was only one study done worldwide, and it was in Scotland years ago,” said Roche, the BLM visual resource management specialist and project lead for the analysis.

The BLM is just wrapping up a similar study for wind turbines, which began in late 2009. BLM workers looked at wind farms between Cheyenne and Rawlins, between Cheyenne and Casper, and one in northern Colorado. The report is expected to be made public sometime late next year.

The transmission line view study will be similar to the wind turbine work. Federal workers and contractors, sometimes up to 20 or so, Roche said, would view and photograph the wind turbines from increasingly distant points, note how the turbines looked and log the time, location, weather conditions and the lighting conditions, even at night.

“Night sky is a huge impact for visual resources due to the blinking lights required by the FAA,” said Roche, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Roche said the transmission line study will probably involve travel to Colorado and Utah to measure the appearance of power lines there, located in conditions similar to Wyoming: open skies and sage brush.

“The goal of the study is to be Western landscapes,” she said.

“It’s challenging to think about how this works, because it’s not a hard science, but it’s something folks live with every day,” Gorny said.

The transmission line view study should be available to the public in late 2013.