WILLCOX — A Safford firm is working on the first stage of a renewable energy project just south of Graham County.
Souder, Miller & Associates, of Safford, is completing the surveying for the Red Horse 2 Wind Farm, located in Allen Flats, northwest of Willcox.
The farm, which will host 26 turbines as tall as 497 feet, with blades up to 192 feet in diameter and producing up to 51 megawatts of electricity (enough to power 51,000 homes), broke ground Dec. 20, 2013.
“We will be working feverishly, trying to get as much done as possible before the end of the year,” said Glenn Holliday, land manager with Torch Energy Advisors of Houston.
Torch Renewable Energy, LLC, was required to break ground by Dec. 31, 2013, to cash in on federal tax credits for renewable energy sources.
The shipment of turbines is expected in February 2015, with a rough opening date of early summer 2015. Prior to that, a job fair will be held in September or October 2014 for construction contracts, and applications may be submitted through the company Web site, www.torchwind.com.
There will be about 100 to 150 employees at the height of construction, and about four to six full-time employees when the farm is up and running, Holliday said. He explained that Mortensen Construction “will be in charge of the hiring, under our direction.”
The rural Allen Flats area on 5,760 acres of state trust land, and a small plot of private property near the Winchester Mountains, was selected for the project for a number of reasons.
“We have been measuring the wind since last September with meteorological towers. There is less than six meters per second annual average wind speed. We were hoping for 6.1 meters per second,” Holliday said. “But this is a good area for many reasons. The elevation is between 5,000 and 5,400 feet, where you get better wind. It’s also accessible, as it’s relatively flat, and it is fairly remote. That makes construction and maintenance easier.”
Tucson Electric Power has a transmission line near the site and has agreed to purchase power produced by the wind farm for the next 20 years, Cochise County Planning Manager Michael Turisk said.
Impact on wildlife
Being near the Willcox Playa and the thousands of wintering birds that feed in the area, there is concern for migrating birds and the bats that visit during monsoon season. Arizona Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are conducting ongoing studies of the impact the wind farm may have on wildlife. A golden eagle pair that nests the area, the bald eagles that find winter foraging within 10 miles of the site and the long-nosed bats that frequent the area are all protected species and will be monitored by the wildlife agencies.
In a letter to the county from Arizona Game and Fish, dated March 25, 2013, Ginger Ritter, project evaluation program specialist, stated: “It is our understanding that per the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and subsequent guidance drafted by USFW, the locations of, and activities of, golden eagles and active nests both on Red Horse Wind and the vicinity may ultimately influence turbine locations, depending on turbine setback recommendations put forth by the Eagle Conservation Plan, which will be developed by the applicant, USFW and Arizona Game and Fish . . . After review of the special use permit application and available data on the project, the department recommends postponing approval of the application until more wildlife data is available to assess the applicant’s effects on wildlife populations. If this is not possible, we recommend putting our recommendations as conditions to the permit.”
That request was not included in the conditions set by county staff for the special use permit.
Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival Chairman Homer Hansen has also expressed disapproval of the project due to its danger to area and migrating birds.
Though the Nature Conservancy operates the Muleshoe Ranch Preserve near the wind farm, Turisk said the organization had no comment either for or against the proposal. The same position was taken by Arizona Audubon.
There is little that can be done to prevent the “flicker effect,” which is the term used for the shadows cast by the moving turbine blades. That will not affect any residences, since the nearest home is two miles away, Turisk said.
Dust mitigation caused by construction and maintenance trucks was a condition of the planning commissioners’ approval, as was a $3 million up-front fund to cover the costs of county road maintenance. Another condition of approval sets a three-year limit from the date of approval for substantial construction to begin, or the special use permit will be revoked.
Both the cities of Benson and Willcox support the wind farm, as does the Willcox Regional Economic Development Alliance and the Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group.
Holliday said he believes that “all stakeholders will be happy with the final result.
“We’re thankful for the support we’ve gotten from the community. We believe that we’re going to be a good partner, and we look forward to moving into the future.”
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