Wyoming wind farm construction lags behind permitting

Source: JEREMY FUGLEBERG • Casper Star-Tribune • Posted: Monday, February 20, 2012

CASPER, Wyo. — Not long ago, it wasn’t unusual for a hundred or more wind turbines to sprout into the Wyoming sky each year.

But while the state’s wind generates a bigger chunk of Wyoming electricity than ever before, the number of built turbines has lagged ever slower behind the number of permits issued by state regulators.

At the end of 2011, only slightly more than half of turbines given the go-ahead by the state had been built. Financial concerns, tax uncertainty, legal and environmental issues, and transmission line constraints have slowed construction, said Todd Parfitt, administrator of the state’s Industrial Siting Division.

It seems that 2008 to 2010 was a golden age for Wyoming wind energy. Of 1,488 wind turbines permitted by the state since the first state-permitted wind farm got an OK in 1995, only 825 have been built, and three out of four built were erected between 2008 and 2010.

Since then, “Things have since kind of slowed down a little bit,” Parfitt said.

Issues hinder projects

The Industrial Siting Council, a state board that must sign off on large commercial projects in Wyoming, approved permits for 266 new turbines in 2009 and 353 turbines in 2010, but only an additional 62 turbines in 2011.

No developer with state turbine permits in hand has abandoned a project, Parfitt said. But a number of wind farms are on hold, have yet to complete additional construction phases or are still dealing with a range of issues.

“Transmission is a key to a lot of this, having the new transmission capabilities,” he said. “Obviously sage grouse core areas is a big part of this as well, as well as the tax structure, having some certainty there.”

The tax structure is certainly unclear, or perhaps less friendly. In January, Wyoming began imposing a $1 per megawatt hour tax on wind energy production and a sales and use tax on equipment used in wind energy projects after state legislators nixed an alternate plan to continue a tax exemption for such projects and impose a 2 percent impact fee.

Gov. Matt Mead and some energy companies have said they fear the heavier tax burden will discourage wind energy projects in the state. Meanwhile, federal policymakers are now fighting over whether to extend a key federal tax credit.

And while the quasi-governmental Wyoming Infrastructure Authority is advocating for new transmission line development in the state, Wyoming officials are zealously protecting areas in the state critical to the survival of the endangered sage grouse.

Turbines on hold

Third Planet Windpower’s Reno Junction project just west of Wright is one of the projects with permits but no turbines. The state Industrial Siting Council approved the 100-turbine project in 2010, but is still waiting for more information from the San Ramon, Calif.-based company.

“… They need to make some demonstration about their financial capability,” said Parfitt, whose division is part of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

The company didn’t answer a Star-Tribune request for comment, but lists the project as under development on its website.

Novelution Wind’s Chugwater Flats project northeast of Chugwater also hasn’t moved forward. The project, the first of its kind in Platte County, received state approval in 2010 for the first phase of its construction, totaling 143 towers. On its website, the Chugwater-based company said it planned to build 151 additional turbines at the site in a second construction phase.

Novelution didn’t answer a Star-Tribune request for comment, but Parfitt said to his knowledge the company’s financial capability wasn’t an issue, although he wasn’t sure of the specifics. When the company came before the division, the final two phases of the three-phase project weren’t far enough along, Parfitt said.

“So we just went forward with the first phase,” he said. “That one just hasn’t moved forward.”

Wasatch Wind’s Pioneer Park Wind Energy Project was the only wind project approved by the council last year. The Park City, Utah-based company got both state and county approval for its 62-turbine project split between two nearby sites south of Glenrock, but is currently fighting local opposition in state courts.

A group of opponents known as the Northern Laramie Range Alliance lost a battle in a Wyoming District Court, but said it would appeal the Industrial Siting Council’s approval of the project’s permit to the state Supreme Court.

The alliance claims the company has yet to prove it has met the Industrial Siting Council’s requirement that Wasatch show it is financially capable of building, running and eventually tearing down the wind farm.

Wasatch Wind officials say they’re optimistic about their plan to build the permitted turbines.

“Our plan has always been to complete both projects by the end of 2012 and we are still on track,” Wasatch spokeswoman Michelle Stevens said.

Still, Wyoming wind energy in terms of megawatts produced is now the second highest generator of electricity in the state — although still well behind coal, which produces three-quarters of the state’s megawatt production, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The majority of Wyoming’s power generation comes from coal, but a significant and increasing amount is generated from wind and natural gas, along with a consistent and established hydropower generation,” said Jim Stafford of the Wyoming State Geological Survey, in a recently released report cataloging the state’s electrical generation resources.

Wyoming wind farms now have the capacity to generate 16 percent of electricity produced in the state, according to the EIA figures. That’s far above hydropower and natural gas-powered generation, which can generate 3 percent each, and oil’s 1 percent.

Wyoming wind turbines — those actually constructed — shot from a total capacity of 213 megawatts in 2007 to 825 megawatts in 2010, a nearly four-fold boost.

While turbine construction hasn’t kept up with state permitting, Parfitt of the Industrial Siting Division said he expects requests for permits over the next two years to allow for another 1,500 turbines in the state.

That total includes Denver-based Anschutz Corp.’s Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project south of Rawlins in Carbon County.

That project would add 2,500 megawatts of production to the state’s electricity portfolio, and 1,000 new white turbines spinning in the Wyoming wind.