IDAHO FALLS – A company hoping to build a wind farm on public and private land between Arco and Idaho Falls is getting mixed reactions from members of the community.
Massachusetts-based Arco Wind is the project applicant. The project plans to encompass about 32,000 acres in Bingham and Bonneville counties, beginning 13 miles west of Idaho Falls and extending across both sides of U.S. Highway 20 to the edge of the INL near East Butte.
Mark Green, the development director for NorthRenew Energy, LLC, which owns the project, tells EastIdahoNews.com the company is seeking a conditional use permit for the placement of up to 115 wind turbines in the area.
The exact amount will depend upon the size of each turbine and the project could include up to 5,000-acres of solar panels as well.
Green estimates the project will generate between 300 and 400 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 80,000 to 100,000 homes. The power will be sold to Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, which he says will have an “econommic benefit” for customers.
“The pricing that we offer … (is) more competitive than some of the traditional fuel sources,” says Green. “But there’s also an environmental component. Once we’re operational, there will be virtually zero emissions from the facility.”
He also cites an employment benefit that will create about 200 construction jobs and an additional 800 indirect jobs during the construction phase.
Additionally, three percent of the wind farm’s annual gross revenue will benefit each of the counties and positively impact property tax rates, he says.
Green anticipates construction getting underway next summer and lasting about 18 months. He’s expecting it to be fully operational at the beginning of 2025, barring any delays.
“These projects take a while. That’s just the nature of how they go,” he says.
Arco Wind became interested in building a wind farm at this location as early as 2018. Its remoteness was one factor that appealed to them, along with the fact that it’s in the “Bonneville commercial wind zone.”
“It’s an area where Bonneville County is looking to put commercial wind,” Green says. “And the wind resources are good.”
Arco Wind built a 60-meter meteorological tower on the property in September 2020 to evaluate wind characteristics in the area. After two years of collecting data, Green says they’ve determined that wind speed and atmospheric conditions are ideal for a wind farm.
“The direction of the wind will change and the speed of the wind will change over the course of the year and over the course of the day, which can be important,” he explains. “Bingham and Bonneville … are growing quite quickly. There’s a demand for power that comes at certain times of the day from human activity early in the morning and in the afternoon.”
Green says a lot of locals are supportive of the project. But there is a group of residents who have concerns about it.
Brenda Pace, a retired archaeologist with the Idaho National Laboratory, is worried about potential damage to the Wasden Caves, a historical site occupying about 10 acres in the area where the wind farm is being proposed.
These lava tube caves date back to the Ice Age and many artifacts, like bones, fossils and other animal remains, and ancient tools, have been recovered from it over the years. Many of them are now on display at the Museum of Idaho, which Pace has helped make possible.
The caves also contain drawings dating back thousands of years, and it serves as a natural habitat for bats and a variety of birds.
“These wind towers are so big, and they really surround the site. It’s going to be really difficult to impart the true essence of the site to people,” Pace explains.
Bats provide a lot of unseen benefits to people, Pace says. They provide “free pest control” by eating mosquitoes and other bugs that carry harmful viruses and damage crops. If their habitat is damaged as a result of the wind farm, she fears the bats will die off or migrate elsewhere.
“One of the caves – the third largest hibernacula for big-eared bats in the state – is about a mile from the wind tower array. I’m really afraid that the towers are going to be placed without any consideration of where those caves are at,” says Pace.
Randy Harris, whose grandfather, Leonard Wasden, once owned the caves, is committed to the site’s protection and preservation. Shoshone-Bannock Tribal members have also expressed concerns about potential damage to the natural landscape.
Though Green has publicly referenced studies NorthRenew has conducted about these issues, Pace says it fails to acknowledge the concerns in public documents. She’d like to see some protective barriers put in place at that location before the wind farm project moves forward.
But Green says they follow a set of federal guidelines for evaluating projects of this magnitude. They are well aware of the location of the caves because they “walk every foot of the land we’re going to disturb before we go and do construction.”
“When we’re looking at one of those preliminary designs, we go out and walk that area and maybe we find a little something that you don’t want to disturb. In our studies, we’ll note that and change it accordingly. But by law, we have to keep some of that information confidential,” Green says.
If the public learned of a previously unknown finding, for example, Green says it might prompt them to walk on the property and disturb it prior to development. For that reason, the full report is made available to the appropriate entity confidentially, but only a summary is made available to the public.
“Sometimes, you get folks that are saying, ‘I didn’t see you look at this aspect of the bats or the birds. What are you going to do about this?’ It’s because they’re not necessarily seeing the engagement we’re having with different agencies or the extent of the report,” Green says.
But Green and his team want to make sure everyone with concerns has a chance to weigh in on the project. Members of the community had a chance to voice their concerns at a recent planning and zoning meeting in Bingham County.
A similar meeting will take place in Bonneville County soon, but a date has not been determined.
“They have the opportunity to approve (the project) with conditions and I would expect there to be some conditions. We’ve already requested that there be some conditions added that’s in line with the Bingham County hearing process,” Green says.
Specific details about the wind project are outlined here. Anyone with questions or concerns can reach out to Green via email.
Once the concerns are addressed, the project can move forward. He’s excited to see the wind farm come to fruition.
“Our experience working with Bonneville and Bingham County has been excellent. The landowners have been fantastic. I’ve done projects across the U.S. and this has been a great set of people to work with,” Green says.
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