Obama admin reaches 10,000-MW project threshold three years early

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Obama administration has issued final approval for the largest wind farm in North America, a move that will allow the nation to meet a goal set forth in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to approve roughly 10,000 megawatts of new renewable energy projects on federal land by 2015.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today announced at a ceremony in Cheyenne, Wyo., that he has signed a record of decision for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project in southeast Wyoming.

The ROD for the project marks a milestone for the administration, which has focused on expanding renewables development on public land. Salazar noted it would have the capacity to power roughly 1 million homes.

“When President Obama took office, he made expanding production of American-made energy a priority, including making our nation a world leader in harnessing renewable energy,” Salazar said today in a statement. “Tapping the vast renewable energy resources on our nation’s public lands will create jobs while supporting a clean energy future.”

The 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project is one of seven commercial-scale solar and wind projects on federal and tribal lands in Arizona, California, Nevada and Wyoming that the administration announced in August it would expedite through the permitting process (Greenwire, Aug. 7).

Proposed by Power Company of Wyoming LLC, the project would string together as many as 1,000 wind turbines across more than 220,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands and ranchlands.

“Wyoming has some of the best wind energy resources in the world, and there’s no doubt that this project has the potential to be a landmark example for the nation,” Salazar said. “President Obama challenged us in his State of the Union address to authorize 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on our public lands by the end of the year — enough to meet the needs of more than 3 million homes — and today we are making good on that promise.”

Interior since 2009 has authorized 33 renewable energy projects: 18 utility-scale solar facilities, seven wind farms and eight geothermal power plants, with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure that will enable the projects to connect to established power grids.

When built, these projects will provide more than 10,000 MW of power, or enough electricity to power more than 3.5 million homes, and support an estimated 13,000 construction and operations jobs, according to Interior.

The ROD authorizes BLM to proceed with site-specific environmental analysis for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm, including a 230-kilovolt transmission line, a rail distribution facility through which most of the turbine equipment will be transported, and substations to connect the generated power to the electric grid.

The ROD also approves amendments to BLM’s Rawlins Resource Management Plan, identifying the project area as available for wind energy development.

Additional environmental reviews will be needed for the specific turbine layout, according to Interior.

Power Company of Wyoming will have to work closely with BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service to design an avian protection plan and an eagle conservation plan, including measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to all avian and bat species.

The project will avoid state-identified greater sage grouse core areas through a conservation plan that accommodates ongoing ranching and agricultural operations, according to BLM.

The sage grouse issue is particularly important to Wyoming.

FWS in March 2010 determined the bird warrants Endangered Species Act protection, and the agency placed it on a list of “candidate species” deserving of protection. FWS is under a court-mandated deadline to make a final ESA determination on the grouse by 2015.

BLM said the ROD for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm is the culmination of more than four years of work, which was necessary because of the large sage grouse population that exists across southern Wyoming. More than half the remaining grouse population in North America is in Wyoming.

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project’s mitigation includes a sage grouse monitoring program using GPS technology to understand the birds’ activities and habitat use, as well as an avian monitoring program using advanced radar tracking technology to collect insights into where raptors may fly in relation to the project site. PCW is also using the data to develop its science-based eagle conservation strategy, according to the company.

“The Bureau of Land Management is committed to responsibly developing renewable energy on our country’s public lands,” said BLM acting Director Mike Pool. “That includes an extensive environmental review and making sure that we’re mitigating the potential impacts of energy development on our wildlife and our lands.”