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Environmental priorities at odds in decision to bring clean energy to Fort Collins

A transmission line from Wyoming to the Rawhide Energy Station north of Wellington isn’t just a conveyance of clean wind energy from the Cowboy State – it’s a reminder of Fort Collins’ competing environmental priorities.

The transmission line will cut through almost 10 miles of the city-owned Meadow Springs Ranch area on its way to the power plant. It will carry an estimated 150 megawatts of new wind energy, enough to power more than 70,000 homes.

It would be a key piece of reducing Fort Collins’ carbon emissions as laid out in the city’s climate action plan. According to city documents, this energy alone could cut the community’s carbon emissions by 10 percent and could provide nearly 50 percent of the green energy used in the city.

All that energy will be carried via steel poles up to 100 feet tall across prairie land that’s home to burrowing owls and the recently re-introduced, and previously thought extinct, blackfooted ferrets.

The decision ended up being a small-scale face-off between top environmental values: minimizing habitat destruction/alteration and fighting against climate change with carbon-free energy.

“One of the biggest limitations for getting renewables to where you live are transmission lines,” City Council member Gerry Horak said at the Jan. 15 council meeting, adding that many are already at capacity. “… I know for some environmentalists this is hard, but if you’re gonna like renewables, you gotta love transmission lines. It’s the only way you’re going to get them.”

The council voted 6-1 to give Roundhouse Renewable Energy an easement to run the transmission line. Several self-described environmental advocates voiced their support for the project before the vote. They weren’t happy with the potential environmental impact but said they understood the trade-off to secure the city’s energy and climate action goals.

Council member Ross Cunniff was not convinced that every mitigation effort was explored with the project and cast the sole dissenting vote.

“This is one of the classic competing-values places that council members find themselves in,” Cunniff said. “On the one hand, I completely support our climate action goals and our renewable energy goals. On the other hand, I also completely support our habit, natural areas and general environmental goals.

“I believe, and just as we talk about how we can meet our climate action goals without causing significant economic disruption … we can also achieve our goals without causing significant disruptions to our undeveloped natural areas that surround our city.”

Cunniff specifically asked for more consideration of running the line parallel to the existing Western Area Power Administration’s transmission line in Weld County. According to city documents, wildlife and plant data wasn’t as readily available, and using that route would add up to five more miles of distance to the line.

The transmission line is slated to run roughly parallel to railroad tracks that are west of Interstate 25. The city wastewater fund will be paid about $100,000 by Nextera Energy Resources, which owns Roundhouse Energy, for the easement, and about $300,000 for mitigation compensation.