The Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission approved the Rail Tie Wind Project application with a 5-0 vote during a meeting Wednesday evening.
The application by energy company ConnectGen for a wind energy conversion system permit will now go before the Board of County Commissioners, which is scheduled to review the application during its June 1 meeting.
ConnectGen is in the midst of securing county, state and federal permission for the 500-megawatt project, which proposes 120 turbines, each about 600 feet tall, on 26,000 acres of public and private land near Tie Siding. Construction would start early next year.
The project would connect to a transmission line operated by the Western Area Power Administration that runs through the southern part of the project area.
Members of the public weighed in for and against the project. Those opposing the project cited increased traffic, ice throw, fire danger, bird mortality and setbacks as some of their concerns.
Mitch Edwards, an attorney representing a group of nearby landowners, said the application didn’t adequately address county regulations.
“It leaves flexibility, which in the world of law results in a lack of enforceability,” he said. “It’s hard to enforce a permit standard if the standard is loosey-goosey.”
Anne Brande said the project would hurt her portrait photography business.
“I make my living on that view shed,” she said. “Local families want their portraits at Vedauwoo, and they don’t want turbines.”
Other commenters said they supported the project because it’s in an area that’s already impacted by development, there’s already a transmission line, it would allow Albany County to profit from Wyoming’s energy economy and it would expand renewable energy development.
Kelly Schroeder said she feels more hopeful about staying in Laramie long-term.
“This is by far the most exciting thing this area has been considering in a long time, and it gives me hope that Albany County and the state of Wyoming can be a place where young people can stay and make a future.”
Mike Massie said Albany County has struggled for decades as the lowest per capita revenue generator in the state, but wind energy changes that conversation.
“It’s nice to be out in front,” he said.
In response to questions of a possible impact of the project on property values, county assessor Grant Showacre said his office has been tracking home sales in the immediate area, and 15 recent sales showed no decrease in property values.
“We are keeping a close eye on this, and we’re not seeing any information at this point that the wind farm is causing property value decreases,” he said.
Project manager Amanda MacDonald addressed a variety of questions from commissioners Bern Hinckley and Maura Hanning regarding Wyoming Game and Fish Department recommendations, ice throw, lighting systems, fire suppression and shadow flicker.
She said ConnectGen plans to comply with a request from Game and Fish to limit construction in areas designated as big game crucial winter range from Nov. 15-April 30, which would impact five turbine locations.
“We have fully committed to this recommendation,” she said.
Further, ConnectGen and Game and Fish have established a technical advisory committee that will meet annually to review wildlife monitoring data and reclamation efforts for the life of the project.
Regarding ice throw, MacDonald said the suggestion for a setback of 1.5 times the turbine height – which exceeds the setback requirement of 1.1 times the turbine height in the county’s regulations – isn’t necessary for modern turbines that can detect ice build-up and curtail operation accordingly.
“That dramatically minimizes the risk of ice throw,” she said.
ConnectGen plans to ask the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use an aircraft detection lighting system, which would turn turbine lights on at night only when an aircraft is in the area. MacDonald said they would seek permission once every turbine location has been finalized, but the ultimate decision would rest with the FAA.
MacDonald said ConnectGen’s fire suppression strategy, which it employs at wind projects located in rangeland habitat, is to let a turbine that catches fire burn itself out while containing the fire from the ground.
“That is the standard process for fighting these fires,” she said. “The emphasis is to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading.”
MacDonald said ConnectGen’s analysis shows that shadow flicker would fall below 30 hours per year on neighboring properties, which is considered an industry standard. The property receiving the most impact would see shadow flicker for an average of 15 minutes per day, while most days would have none.
“Based on that, we’re not considering any shadow flicker curtailment on this project,” she said.
Hinckley proposed three amendments to address aircraft detection lighting systems, shadow flicker and fire suppression, but they were each defeated by 3-2 votes.
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