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A new chapter for a controversial wind farm, as sPower buys Pioneer Wind Park from Wasatch Wind

For much of the past five years, controversy has surrounded a proposed 46-turbine wind farm planned near Glenrock. Now, a new company will try to push the project across the finish line.

sPower acquired the interest in the planned 80-megawatt Pioneer Wind Park from Wasatch Wind in early August. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The new Salt Lake City-based developer is an experienced hand in the solar and wind arenas. A subsidiary of Fir Tree Capital, a New York City hedge fund, sPower is the operator of more than 150 projects across the United States and United Kingdom. The company has another 1.7 gigawatts of power in the planning and construction phase.

“We seek projects that are both environmentally and economically responsible,” said Naomi Keller, an sPower spokeswoman. “Pioneer Wind Park fits both criteria.”

But it faces well-financed opposition. The Northern Laramie Range Alliance, which claims 900 members opposed to the facility, is backed by a prominent Casper lawyer and a former treasurer of the World Bank. They argue the wind farm will mar the landscape and cost ratepayers more on their monthly electric bills.

The project’s proponents note the wind farm cannot pass on a price increase to ratepayers under the federal law governing small scale renewable projects.

The NLRA has challenged the turbines at the Wyoming Supreme Court, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and in federal court. It lost in all three venues but succeeded in slowing Pioneer with a flood of legal briefs.

The next showdown will come at the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council, the state regulatory board that permits large-scale developments. On Monday, the commission will consider sPower’s request to reduce its reclamation bond for the facility after initial plans were downsized.

That figures to be a sideshow, however, to the real fight in October, when regulators will evaluate sPower’s financial capacity to build the estimated $120 to $145 million wind farm.

Financing has proved a tricky task for the project in the past. Edison Mission Energy, which partnered with Wasatch to finance the wind farm, went bankrupt in 2012. The state has since extended the deadline twice for the project’s developers to show financial assurance.

sPower says it’s up to the job. Fir Tree, its parent company, manages $13 billion in assets and is the main shareholder in sPower. The renewable power developer listed $976 million in total assets in a filing with state regulators. And company officials point to the Latigo Wind Farm in Monticello, Utah, as evidence of their ability to get the job done.

Also acquired from Wasatch, Latigo languished for 10 years. Construction began 60 days after sPower acquired the project, which is now slated for completion in December. A group of landowners there is challenging Latigo’s conditional use permit.

“We have a substantial number of projects operating and in construction, including several that are similar in size to Pioneer, which demonstrates our ability to successfully finance and build projects,” Keller said.

But the NLRA sees reason for concern. sPower did not disclose its income, the alliance noted. (sPower also declined to share its income with the Star-Tribune, saying it was a private company.) Of the $976 million in assets, $437 million are in projects under construction. The company listed $26 million in working capital. And the relationship to Fir Tree is unclear.

Edison Mission was a subsidiary of Edison International, but that did not prevent Edison Mission from going bankrupt when it ran into financial difficultly, Casper attorney Peter Nicolaysen wrote in a filing to the Industrial Siting Council.

Ken Lay, an NLRA member and the former World Bank treasurer, said the Industrial Siting Commission needs more information about the project.

“On the basis of what’s just been submitted, we believe it’s evident that this company doesn’t have the financial capacity to build this project,” Lay said.

Unknown is whether Pioneer will qualify for a 2.3-cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit that expired at the end of 2013.

To qualify, a company would have had to begin work prior to 2015. That can include everything from equipment purchases to dirt work needed to prepare a site.

Wasatch officials had said Pioneer would qualify for the credit, though they did not disclose how. Keller repeated the claim but declined to comment on what work had been completed.