Sprawling Ariz. project advances despite industry uncertainty

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Bureau of Land Management is nearing approval of what would become Arizona’s largest wind farm, covering nearly 50,000 acres of federal land, that supporters say could spark more commercial-scale wind power development.

Houston-based BP Wind Energy North America Inc.’s proposed 500-megawatt Mohave County Wind Farm in northwest Arizona would string together as many as 283 wind turbines across nearly 39,000 acres of BLM land and nearly 9,000 acres of Bureau of Reclamation land. The wind farm would have the capacity to produce enough electricity to power as many as 175,000 homes in Arizona, Nevada and California.

BLM has released a draft environmental impact statement for the BP Wind Energy project, which the company proposes to connect to existing transmission substations operated by the Western Area Power Administration.

The draft EIS, which does not include a BLM-identified “preferred alternative,” is open for public comment through June 11.

he Mohave County Wind Farm is the only project in Arizona, and one of five wind power projects in California, Nevada and Wyoming, identified by the Interior Department as a priority to complete the federal permitting process by year’s end. A final EIS for the BP Wind Energy project is expected by December, said Dennis Godfrey, a BLM spokesman in Phoenix.

BP Wind Energy plans to complete construction of the $1 billion wind farm and begin operation by mid-2014, said Amanda Abbott, the company’s director of government and public affairs.

“Of course we’re very excited about this project,” said Abbott, who noted the project should help state utilities meet Arizona’s renewable energy standard. The standard requires electric utilities to purchase or generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal power by 2025.

BP does not yet have a power purchase agreement in place, but the wind farm’s electricity will be marketed to utilities in Arizona, Nevada and California, Abbott said.

“To be honest, all those states will be marketed,” she said.

The BP Wind Energy proposal comes at a tenuous time for the wind power industry. Congress has still not renewed a production tax credit for wind energy set to expire at year’s end that the industry warns is needed to ensure wind power continues to grow.

Thousands of jobs already have been lost because developers are not ordering new turbines amid uncertainty about the credit’s future (E&E Daily, April 27).

And other large-scale wind power projects have run into environmental and funding obstacles.

Example: the China Mountain Wind Project, which would sit mostly on BLM land in southeast Idaho and would be that state’s largest wind farm. BLM notified chief developer Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. in March that it had delayed its work on an environmental impact statement for the wind farm after determining the site encompassed 42 percent of the western United States’ sage grouse population.

NV Energy Inc., which had partnered on the project with RES Americas, announced last month that it was withdrawing from the project, putting the wind farm’s future in doubt (Greenwire, April 25).

BP Wind Energy’s Mohave County project must also address environmental concerns, as well as noise and visual impacts to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, just north of the proposed project site.

“In general, we support the project, but we are concerned with the location of some of the turbines,” said Jim Holland, park planner at the recreation area.

Specifically, Holland said there are about 10 turbines on the northwest corner of the proposed project site that concern park officials, and they have asked BLM to consider relocating them.

“But it’s outside the park unit, so it’s not something we have any control over,” Holland said. “We have made recommendations to preserve the park values. We don’t want to hear the noise of turbines. To some extent, they have proposed to do some of that, but not all we feel like they can do.”

BLM spokesman Godfrey said BP Wind Energy is also working on formal protection plans for golden eagles, bats and birds, as well as the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise, whose habitat extends into the project site. He said only “a handful” of tortoises have been spotted on the project site.

These protection plans will be included in the final EIS released later this year, Godfrey said.

Environmental groups have also noted potential impacts to raptors that could strike wind turbine blades towering more than 500 feet in places.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter in Phoenix, said her group supports responsible renewables development but cautioned that the Mohave County Wind Farm could have “large implications” for wildlife if concerns are not properly addressed.

“We have been trying to encourage the use of areas that have been disturbed by various activities versus going into areas that are not,” Bahr said.

Abbott said BP Wind Energy would do what it takes to make the project as environmentally sensitive as possible.

“That’s a philosophy that underpins our business,” she said.

Untested wind potential

BP Wind Energy chose the nearly 50,000-acre tract for the project after extensive testing revealed it has high wind values.

Wind energy advocates say there are many other such spots in Arizona, which is known as a solar mecca, not a hot spot for wind development.

Indeed, Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is one of the most attractive solar-power development sites in the nation.

BLM is considering 28 large-scale solar permit applications in the state, according to agency statistics. If fully built, these projects would cover nearly 400,000 acres of federal land and have a generation capacity of roughly 17,000 MW — enough to power nearly 6 million homes.

But little corresponding wind power development has occurred in the Grand Canyon State.

Wind resource maps compiled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ranked Arizona No. 27 for potential installed wind power capacity.

Still, the state has about 138 MW of installed commercial-scale wind power, ranking it 27th among producing states, according to NREL statistics.

Most of that wind-power capacity — 130 MW, or enough to power about 50,000 homes — represents one wind farm, Iberdrola Renewables Inc.’s Dry Lake facility near Snowflake in north-central Arizona. The two-phase project was completed in December 2010.

NREL has estimated there are 10,904 MW of installed wind power potential in the state.

In addition to the Mohave County Wind Farm, BLM is reviewing six other applications for wind projects in the state that would cover more than 115,000 acres of federal land.

All six wind-power proposals are in the very early stages of development, Godfrey said, and have set up meteorological towers to gauge wind potential.

Those companies’ wind resource tests likely will find a better wind resource than they expected, said Craig Cox, executive director of Denver-based Interwest Energy Alliance, an industry trade group.

“Certainly, the state is known more for solar than for wind, but I think that Arizona has a great wind-resource potential,” Cox said. “I think our developers are, and will continue, doing all they can to make this resource a reality.”