Wyo. approves what would be largest wind farm project in North America

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, August 11, 2014

A massive proposed wind power project on federal and private lands in southeast Wyoming has reached a critical regulatory milestone, with the state this week approving the final permit necessary to build up to 1,000 turbines in what would become one of the world’s largest onshore wind farms.

The seven-member Wyoming Industrial Siting Council, which must approve all wind projects in the state larger than 30 turbines, voted unanimously after two days of public hearings to authorize the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project. If built, it would have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest power-producing wind farm in North America.

The state has 45 days to formally publish the industrial siting permit, said Kimber Wichmann, principal economist with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s industrial siting division.

The siting permit is the last major state permit that the project proponent, Power Company of Wyoming LLC, needs to obtain before proceeding to the construction phase, said Kara Choquette, a company spokeswoman.

“We are very pleased that the Council voted to grant PCW a permit for its wind project,” Roxane Perruso, Power Company of Wyoming’s vice president and general counsel, said in an emailed statement. “This is another significant milestone in the development process. We appreciate the significant time and attention that the Industrial Siting Council and the Industrial Siting Division devoted to reviewing and considering our application.”

But the project still faces a lengthy, ongoing federal review process that will not be finalized until next year.

The Bureau of Land Management already issued a record of decision (ROD) in October 2012 for the project, which proposes to string together as many as 1,000 turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and private ranchlands.

The ROD authorized BLM to proceed with site-specific environmental analysis for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm, including a 230-kilovolt transmission line, and it was always understood that additional environmental reviews would be needed, including an eagle conservation plan that lays out measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts.

BLM is currently conducting two separate environmental assessments (EAs) of the project that are associated with the final environmental impact statement (EIS) and ROD.

BLM’s first EA covers what Choquette called the “base infrastructure” associated with the first 500 wind turbines, such as a quarry to supply materials for road construction, access roads and a rail distribution facility that will be used to deliver the massive wind turbines to the project site.

BLM could release the first EA as early as next week, Choquette said.

The second EA is specific to evaluating the first 500 turbines themselves. The goal is to ensure that the project’s proposed impacts comply with conditions laid out in the ROD, such as surface disturbance limits. BLM will also evaluate planned underground and overhead electrical and communication lines, as well as operation and maintenance facilities, Choquette said.

The second EA is not expected to be released until the end of the year, she said.

Concurrently, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced last year that it is conducting an EIS to study the project’s effects on golden eagles, potentially leading to the issuance of a so-called take permit allowing the project to harm or kill a certain number of eagles each year (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2013).

Fish and Wildlife’s EIS would consider only the first 500 wind turbines.

But the first phase of the wind power project cannot proceed without a take permit, according to the service. The ROD also states that BLM will not issue right-of-way permits to build the wind farm without a take permit.

A final EIS approving or denying an eagle take permit is expected by early 2015.

Power Company of Wyoming has applied for a 30-year take permit. The service implemented a hotly debated new rule this year to increase eagle take permits to 30 years from five years.

The American Bird Conservancy in June filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department and the service challenging the new rule (Greenwire, June 19). ABC asserts in the lawsuit that the revised eagle take rule is riddled with violations of federal law, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The day after the lawsuit was filed, Fish and Wildlife announced it would revisit the 30-year take rule, as well as conduct a broader review of the service’s overall “eagle management objectives.” As part of that review, FWS announced it would evaluate whether the take rule needs to be tweaked (Greenwire, June 20).

ABC earlier this year expressed concerns about the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, writing in a 15-page letter to Fish and Wildlife that there’s simply too little information about eagle populations in the region to know what mitigation strategies would be most effective to protect eagles and to justify issuing an eagle take permit (Greenwire, Feb. 13).

Environmentalists have noted that BLM’s final EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project estimated that, if built, the wind project could result in the deaths of as many as 64 golden eagles each year.

The Power Company of Wyoming has taken issue with BLM’s estimates. Company officials said during public hearings on the project that BLM overestimated how many eagles could be killed and that the company has planned measures to keep that number much lower.

The company earlier this year said it used an “avian radar system” and employed teams of biologists to map where and when birds use the landscape in the project area in an effort to site turbines in areas that minimize risks.