ROCK SPRINGS – On the heels of a proposal to build a 72-turbine wind farm on the south side of Aspen Mountain, other proposed wind farms in Sweetwater County are facing challenges.
The proposed wind farm on White Mountain is moving slowly forward, though proponents are grappling with issues raised by eagles in the area. The wind farm proposed on the Sweeney Ranch wind farm near Rock Springs is on hold, Bureau of Land Management spokesman Lorraine Keith said.
She said Sweeney Ranch proponents are still working on a power purchase agreement though Wasatch Wind, which is sponsoring the project, is putting the farm on hold as it focuses on another site.
“(Wasatch Wind) has had a lot of proposals across the state, and they have one that they are running with now. All else is on hold. The one going forward is on private land in the Casper area,” Keith said.
The White Mountain project is spearheaded by Teton Wind Power, LCC, formerly known as Tasco Engineering. It has been working with the BLM on the eagles and other issues, Keith said. A call to company head Gary Tassainer was not returned by press time.
Sweetwater County Director of Land Use Eric Bingham said Teton Wind Power and Wasatch Wind have not contacted the county to seek a permit for either project.
“We’ve heard nothing from either of them,” he said.
Keith said the Rock Springs BLM Office put together a decision package on the White Mountain plan including a mitigation plan to protect the eagles.
Keith said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has the goal to generate 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.
“He wanted the opportunity to decide on the size of the renewable energy developments. So this one is going to Salazar. We sent him the package at the end of September,” she said.
The matter of protecting eagles reflects a continuing effort on the part of the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Teton Wind Power to mitigate impacts on the birds.
She said U.S. Fish and Wildlife discovered three eagle nests in the project area and is the lead agency working to craft a protection plan to care for the birds and still allow the project to go forward. Keith said the company is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife with the support of the BLM.
“It is important to take care of these sensitive resources,” Keith said.
She said they realized there were raptors in the area late in the process.
“We did not have good enough information on the eagles, and we found out they are not doing as well as we had thought. Teton is gathering more information on the eagles and it should be collected by the end of May 2012,” she said. “We are all working as a team on it.”
To protect the birds, Keith said they will probably remove some of the turbines from the project.
While U.S. Fish and Wildlife is the lead federal agency in this process, it is also drawing expertise from the BLM.
“We are helping in a technical sense,” Keith said. “We have always had buffers around raptor nests, eagles, owls, falcons, hawks.”
She said eagles are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection acts.
“There will be buffers around the eagles’ nests. We are also gathering information on the eagles’ flight patterns, identifying areas they use the most, to help identify where not to put turbines,” she said.
BIRDS AND BATS
Wind farms have environmental concerns that differ from other energy development. For example, Keith said concerns about birds flying into turbines are different than birds flying past natural gas wells.
She said bird mortality is a problem with every wind farm, but there were no major migration routes through the proposed wind farm.
In addition, she said there are no bat concentrations in the White Mountain area and no caves where they hibernate.
Nonetheless, the BLM is considering limiting turbine spinning speeds, which can limit power generation, to protect bats in the area.
“We are looking at different protective measures that could be implemented after construction. We are being proactive on that. You can do things like have the turbines not kick in until a certain wind speed,” Keith said. “So if the wind is too high for bats to fly, the turbines would turn on.”
The number of turbines on the White Mountain wind farm project continues to change.
In 2007, Sweetwater County permitted 36 turbines.
Keith said this was separate from the BLM and it must do an environmental review and wait for all permits to be in place before it issues a right of way grant.
The proposal includes up to 170 turbines on private and state land and up to 70 on BLM land, for a maximum of 240 turbines, but Keith said the company will probably not install the maximum.
She said the Rock Springs Grazing Association and Anadarko Petroleum, the private landowners in the project, still support the project.
On Sept. 7, 2010, the Sweetwater County Commission adopted fees for wind farms and wind towers. These included an application fee of $5,000 for a wind farm, plus $1,000 per turbine and $2,000 for a commercial wind farm construction and use permit.
“Staff went through spreadsheets on the total amount of staff resources needed for each permit and application fee. We had a good methodology,” Sweetwater County Planner Steve Horton said.
Keith said Tassainer is aware of the county’s fee schedule and is still going forward with the project.
SAGE GROUSE AND CULTURAL QUESTIONS
The White Mountain wind farm’s proposed area is not in the core area for sage grouse, Keith said.
She said the best conditions for a wind farm are the worst for the birds, which prefer less wind and thicker vegetation.
“The BLM decided more than a year ago that the cultural concerns with this project could have been addressed better, so we worked together with the tribes and the Oregon Trail Association and did a programmatic agreement. The company has agreed to do various mitigations. It’s all been agreed to. All have signed off on it,” Keith said.
She added while some Native American tribes were concerned about their vision quest sites, the agreement addressed the issue.
Keith said while there remains work to be done, the BLM appears to have achieved a win-win scenario for everyone.
WHAT ABOUT THE VIEW?
Many people questioned how the White Mountain wind warm would impact the view in and around Rock Springs during hearings in 2010.
Keith said the wind farm with have a setback, but turbines, which are 360 feet high including the blades, will still be visible.
“They’re a big structure. But the setback will help with the visual concerns,” she said.
People also expressed concerns about turbines falling down the mountain, so Keith said they are located away from county roads.
Keith said the Rock Springs Grazing Association suggested installing interpretive signs about wind power to go with the wind farm.
“We already have signs about wild horses, oil and gas, mining. It would be a new one for wind energy,” she said.