The Obama administration gave preliminary approval yesterday for siting the first 500 turbines in a southeast Wyoming project that’s projected to become one of the world’s largest wind farms.
At issue is the Bureau of Land Management’s release of an environmental assessment (EA) and draft finding of no significant impact for siting 500 turbines in the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project.
The documents advance a massive project that’s expected to eventually string together 1,000 turbines across about 220,000 acres. The full project would be capable of producing up to 3,000 megawatts – enough to power nearly a million homes, making it the largest electricity-producing wind farm in North America, if not the world.
The EA evaluates the placement of the first 500 turbines on the western portion of project areas that include a massive private ranch owned by Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose subsidiary, Power Company of Wyoming LLC, is proposing to build the turbine farm. The first phase covers a total of 75,000 acres, and will also use federal and some state lands.
“It’s encouraging to reach another important permitting milestone,” Bill Miller, Power Company of Wyoming’s president and CEO, said today in a statement.
The EA and finding of no significant impact are now open for a 30-day public comment period ending April 8. BLM plans to issue a decision record approving the EA and no impact finding by early fall.
The project site just south of Rawlins, Wyo., contains some of the nation’s best onshore wind power resources, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Meteorological towers at various spots on the site have measured average wind speeds of 25 miles per hour – for an entire calendar year.
But BLM is still a long way from issuing a right-of-way grant that would authorize Power Company of Wyoming to begin construction of the first phase of the giant wind project.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must still complete a separate environmental impact statement (EIS) on the project to study its effects on golden eagles, meaning the agency could issue a so-called take permit allowing the project to harm or kill a certain number of eagles each year.
Power Company of Wyoming has applied for a 30-year take permit.
Fish and Wildlife is not expected to complete the EIS until this fall.
FWS must also issue a letter of concurrence agreeing with the siting of the turbines and possibly recommending additional measures to protect birds, bats and especially the greater sage grouse, which occupies areas in and around the ranch where the project site is located.
The company is not sure when construction could begin; Power Company of Wyoming has targeted having the first 500 turbines in operation by 2020.
Still, today’s EA is a major milestone for a groundbreaking project that has been under federal review for years.
BLM in 2012 issued a final EIS and record of decision (ROD) for the project. But the ROD only authorized BLM to proceed with site-specific environmental analysis for the wind farm, including a 230-kilovolt transmission line.
The final EA released today is the second of two that BLM conducted as part of the site-specific analysis mandated in the ROD.
BLM in 2014 issued a decision record and final EA that cleared the way to proceed with a new rail facility and rock quarry that will be needed to build the first 500 turbines of the project.
That decision record and final EA covered only what the project proponents call the “base infrastructure” associated with the first 500 wind turbines, such as construction of access roads, as well as the quarry to supply materials for road construction and the West Sinclair Rail Facility that will be used to deliver the massive wind turbines to the project site.
The goal of the EAs is to ensure that the project’s proposed impacts comply with conditions laid out in the ROD, such as surface disturbance limits. BLM also evaluated planned underground and overhead electrical and communication lines, as well as operation and maintenance facilities.
Power Company of Wyoming has not yet received a right-of-way grant to begin the rail facility, access roads and other base infrastructure. Fish and Wildlife must still issue a separate letter of concurrence essentially agreeing with BLM that the company’s eagle conservation plan and bird and bat conservation strategy, as proposed, are sufficient.
The time-consuming process is all part of the effort by federal regulators to ensure the project advances renewable energy development while causing as few impacts to natural resources as possible, said Mary Jo Rugwell, BLM’s acting Wyoming state director.
“The Bureau of Land Management is committed to responsibly developing renewable energy on our nation’s public lands,” Rugwell said in a statement. “We’re working in close cooperation with state, local and industry officials as well as non-government groups to evaluate these projects at a landscape-level, with extensive environmental reviews, to mitigate potential impacts and ensure that species needs are met along with renewable energy goals.”
Eagles, raptors and grouse
Power Company of Wyoming has spent years and millions of dollars in an effort to carefully map the exact locations of the turbines so that they avoid at-risk wildlife.
That included detailed eagle and raptor nest and use surveys across Anschutz’s 320,000-acre Overland Trail Ranch, where the wind farm will be built over the next decade.
The company sent crews on all-terrain vehicles across a 460,000-acre area on and around the massive ranch. The company and its consultants completed 5,000 hours of eagle and raptor use surveys, as well as avian and bat radar surveys across more than 280,000 acres.
Power Company of Wyoming also developed an eagle conservation plan with Fish and Wildlife for the first phase of the project; the company also worked with FWS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to develop a bird and bat conservation strategy for the first phase.
“Based on the resource survey data, PCW identified environmental constraints and areas where avoidance and minimization measures could be applied,” according to the EA.
Even more time, money and effort were invested studying the comings and goings of greater sage grouse scattered across the different parts of the ranch site at various times of the year.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project site is “located entirely” within what BLM designated in federal grouse conservation plans unveiled last year as “general habitat management areas” for grouse, meaning it is open for wind power development, according to the EA.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project backers have said they want the project to serve as a national model for how to develop large-scale wind power plants in the heart of grouse country.
Power Company of Wyoming hired Broomfield, Colo.-based SWCA Environmental Consultants and has partnered with researchers at the University of Missouri on a groundbreaking research project designed to answer once and for all how wind power development alters the behavior of sage grouse.
SWCA Environmental Consultants for the past six years has placed satellite tracking devices on the backs of hundreds of hens and male grouse. These GPS “backpacks,” as the researchers call them, have generated more than 600,000 data points of information showing in detail exactly where the grouse move or fly on the cattle ranch, what breeding sites they use and when, and where hens nest and rear their chicks.
Power Company of Wyoming used this information to microsite the wind turbines, some as tall as 279 feet, as well as roads and other infrastructure associated with the project to avoid an estimated 58 breeding areas, called leks, in and around the project area.
Overall, the researchers have determined that despite the thousands of acres of largely undisturbed ranchlands comprising the project site, the grouse use only about 25 percent of the project area.
Unfortunately, some areas of the ranch heavily used by the grouse also contain world-class winds that Power Company of Wyoming has pulled from the project.
Power Company of Wyoming has voluntarily set aside over 105,000 acres, or about 33 percent of the Overland Trail Ranch, as specific “turbine no-build areas,” the company said.
In addition, the company has vowed to place 27,500 acres of private land into a conservation easement for the benefit of greater sage grouse and other wildlife.
Click here to read the multivolume EA for the first 500 wind turbines associated with the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Project.
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