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Navajo County Supervisors approve massive wind farm

HOLBROOK – The Navajo County board of supervisors last week approved a 477-megawatt wind farm on land in both Navajo and Coconino counties, but is still urging the developer to address Hopi concerns about the potential impact on eagles and other birds.

The 164 wind turbines would fan out over 42,00 acres in Navajo and Coconino counties. That includes the Chevelon Canyon area 18 miles south of Winslow. The 3,700 acres in Navajo County would have eight of the 164 towers, with blades reaching to a maximum height of 755 feet. That’s roughly twice as high as the existing windmills in the area – equivalent to a 60-story skyscraper. They’ll be the tallest man-made structures in Arizona by hundreds of feet.

The plant would generate enough energy to supply some 150,000 homes and would tap into the existing high-voltage transmission lines for the Cholla coal-fired power plant, which run just three miles from the property.

The supervisors unanimously approved a special use permit. The planning commission has already approved the application on a 3-2 vote.

Terrance Unrein, senior permitting manager for sPower, said “this is the result of months and months and months of environmental and cultural crews surveying the site” which included an effort to identify 111 of archeological sites that could be disturbed by construction.

The wind farm will have enormous environmental advantages over a coal-fired plant like Cholla. That 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant is being phased out as a result of both environmental concerns and an operating cost now higher than wind, solar or natural gas. To supply electricity to a single home, a coal-fired plant burns about 4,700 pounds of coal annually. The emissions from coal-fired plants produce large amounts of heat-trapping, climate-altering emissions and have significant effect on human health in nearby communities.

Wind farms produce virtually no emissions and use virtually no groundwater for cooling. Unrein said in 2018 wind power saved 1.1 billion gallons of water and averted the release of 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide.

However, the giant blades spinning at 30 or 60 miles an hour can pose a lethal hazard for birds. One study estimated wind farms kill 500,000 birds annually – including hundreds of eagles. The number of windmills has nearly doubled since that study was completed. Studies show the number of birds in North America has plummeted in the past decade, although a warming climate likely plays a much larger role than wind farms.

Two present and former members of the Hopi Tribal Council spoke at the supervisors meeting, saying eagles remain central to the Hopi lifeway. They said the developers of the wind farm haven’t done enough to consult with the tribe and minimize the impact on eagles and other wildlife.

Unrein said the developers have spent a year doing wildlife surveys and have found the eagles in canyons bordering the wind farm and around Chevelon Butte. He said the site isn’t a major raptor migratory corridor. The wind farm developers will place the giant windmills a mile away from the canyon edges and Chevelon Butte. However, both golden and bald eagles range widely in search of food. Most bald eagles in Arizona migrate through the region, although some nesting in areas like Woods Canyon Lake may remain year-round. Golden eagles which mostly live on jack rabbits they hunt on the open plains generally remain year-round.

Navajo County Supervisor Jesse Thompson urged sPower to make their presentation to the Hopi Tribal Council and continue meeting with people concerned about the impact on eagles until they can achieve consensus, which is the way both the Navajo and Hopi operate when faced with divisive issues, he said.

The approved special use permit requires the company to develop a “bird and bat conservation strategy” as well as an “eagle conservation plan.”

Other than the concern about eagles, the project mostly drew praise. The Salt Lake City based company is part of a world-wide energy company which has so far developed 1.5 gigawatts of wind power – with another 10 gigawatts in the development pipeline. A breakthrough in the price of wind-generated energy has led to a rush of projects nationwide.

The company has already won the support of the owners of a third-generation cattle ranch, which will continue to graze cattle on the sparse grasslands around the base of the giant windmills.

“We have one of the largest working cattle ranches in Arizona,” said Kim Reynolds, “which was started by my grandfather in the 1800s. For my family, this project represents a new opportunity to help us sustain our ranching operation.”

The windmills are 2.6 miles from the nearest homes and will be barely visible from the highway except where Highway 87 passes through one corner of the wind farm. The massive towers will have lights blinking at night to prevent airplanes from flying into the blades and will adjoin an existing field of windmills. The application notes that in Navajo County there are 198 property owners within two miles of the installation and in Coconino County 14 property owners within five miles – although most of the windmills are in Coconino County.

Unrein said the project will generate $1 million in annual salary for 10 to 30 workers who will operate the plant for the next 25 years. The construction will produce about 200 jobs and $8 million in direct and indirect spending during construction. Most of that spending will boost the economy in Winslow, including an estimated $250,000 for lodging, mechanics, fuel, meals and hardware. The project will also generate lease payments to the state and to local ranchers.

The project will include an 8-acre switching station connected to the existing APS power line leading from Cholla down to the Valley. This will feed the power generated by the windmills into the central grid.

The wind farm will have no impact on property values, according to Unrein. For starters, the wind farm will be one of the most remote in the country – miles from the nearest home. Moreover, a 2009 study by a Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory researcher analyzed 7,500 home sales within 10 miles of existing wind facilities in nine states and found no evidence of an impact on home prices.

However, several homeowners in Coconino County wrote to vehemently oppose the project when it went before the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, saying the windmills would ruin their views. Some focused on the 775-foot maximum height of the windmills – taller than almost any building in Arizona and some 175 feet taller than the 600-foot-tall Chevelon Buttes. The tallest building in Arizona is the 40-story Chase Tower in Phoenix, but it’s only 483 feet tall.