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Sweetwater wind farm debate hinges on placement, visibility

It seems likely that any expansion of Tasco Engineering Inc.'s proposed wind farm on scenic White Mountain in southwest Wyoming -- from the 36 wind turbines already permitted by the county to possibly 237 wind towers -- will hinge on whether a some sort of deal about the placement of the turbines and their visibility from town can be reached.

ROCK SPRINGS -- Like the old real estate adage, wind power in Sweetwater County seems to be all about location, location, location.

It seems likely that any expansion of Tasco Engineering Inc.'s proposed wind farm on scenic White Mountain in southwest Wyoming -- from the 36 wind turbines already permitted by the county to possibly 237 wind towers -- will hinge on whether a some sort of deal about the placement of the turbines and their visibility from town can be reached.

But a lot of other factors are making it difficult for commissioners to figure out exactly what the finished product might look like atop White Mountain. And some of the important issues may only come into play long after the project is permitted.

For example, if enough turbines are built and the project costs top $170 million, the state's Industrial Siting Council will require its own permit. The council would conduct a socioeconomic and environmental review of the project, perhaps later this year.

The result may be council-imposed regulations that differ from what the county requires on the project. That could include requirements for such items as setbacks from roads and boundary... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

ROCK SPRINGS -- Like the old real estate adage, wind power in Sweetwater County seems to be all about location, location, location.

It seems likely that any expansion of Tasco Engineering Inc.'s proposed wind farm on scenic White Mountain in southwest Wyoming -- from the 36 wind turbines already permitted by the county to possibly 237 wind towers -- will hinge on whether a some sort of deal about the placement of the turbines and their visibility from town can be reached.

But a lot of other factors are making it difficult for commissioners to figure out exactly what the finished product might look like atop White Mountain. And some of the important issues may only come into play long after the project is permitted.

For example, if enough turbines are built and the project costs top $170 million, the state's Industrial Siting Council will require its own permit. The council would conduct a socioeconomic and environmental review of the project, perhaps later this year.

The result may be council-imposed regulations that differ from what the county requires on the project. That could include requirements for such items as setbacks from roads and boundary lines, the space between turbines, and other infrastructure measures.

Additionally, about 70 of the turbines are proposed for Bureau of Land Management lands. That agency is expected to release an environmental assessment of the project later this year, which may include cultural and wildlife stipulations for the wind farm the county hasn't imposed.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal has also established a wind energy task force that is looking at the impacts of wind generation and at possibly drafting statewide, uniform rules and regulations for Wyoming projects at some point in the future.

"It's like we're looking at a moving target," Commissioner Paula Wonnacott said during a heavily attended public hearing Tuesday night in Rock Springs on Tasco's application for a conditional use permit that would authorize the White Mountain project.

"The issue for us is ... how do we approach and maintain some sort of consistency with these other governmental entities," she said.

"The one thing I want is consistency," Wonnacott said. "We need to be consistent, regardless of whether (the project) is on private or public lands. We've got to look at the total project."

The commission tabled a vote Tuesday on the Lehi, Utah-based Tasco's permit application for its proposed White Mountain Wind Farm.

White Mountain is a popular recreation area northwest of Rock Springs and northeast of Green River in central Sweetwater County. The 13,180-acre project site lies near the scenic landmark Pilot Butte and the county's recently completed Wild Horse Loop Tour, which runs along the slope of the mountain.

Tasco was granted a conditional use permit last year -- the first application under the county's new wind farm regulations -- to construct 36 wind turbines on top of White Mountain as part of a first project phase. Now Tasco is seeking a second conditional use permit to construct the larger project on the mountain, which includes a possible maximum build-out of 237 wind towers.

Flexibility

A sticking point for county commissioners has been the uncertainty about where exactly the turbines would be placed along White Mountain Road, which traverses the mountain and would be the main access road to the project site.

The developer is seeking flexibility from the county to determine the optimum electrical-generation sites for the turbines.

But those sites will be determined by the size of the turbines (1.5 megawatts or the larger 3-megawatt towers) and the placement of the turbines by the manufacturer for optimum power generation, a normal practice in the wind power industry.

Wonnacott said the bottom line, however, "is that we don't really know how many wind turbines will end up on the mountain (if the permit is approved) ... and that is rather crucial to our decision."

Tasco President Gary Tassainer told commissioners the placement of the towers is critical to the financial success of the project.

Strict viewshed restrictions would most likely "decimate" plans to expand upon the initial 36 turbines, he said.

For example, Tassainer said if he tried to mostly locate the turbines along the west side of White Mountain Road -- making the turbines less visible from Rock Springs -- it would reduce the electric generation by about 73 million kilowatts per year. That could result in lost revenues to the county of about $5 million per year over the 20-year life of the project.

County Planner Mark Kot said there may be different viewshed points or different landowners' sites that would be less visible, but still meet the manufacturer's specifications about the placement of turbines.

"There may be different scenarios to get power out of this project, but still taking into account those viewsheds," he said.

State permit?

Commissioners and county officials clearly preferred to have the project go through the state's Industrial Siting Council process, no matter what the final cost will be.

According to state law, any industrial project with a price tag of $170 million or more triggers an automatic review of the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of the project by the council.

Tassainer said the company has not started the industrial siting process because only 36 wind turbines have been permitted. The cost of building those towers will be around $100 million, well below the council trigger for review.

If the company gets BLM approval and the wind turbine construction exceeds 50 units, only then will the company seek a state permit, he said.

"With BLM approval, we'll have freedom of choice ... and we'll make the choice that makes the best sense for us," Tassainer told commissioners.

"It will cost about $250,000 for the ISC permit," he said. "But without assurances that this will be more than a 36-turbine project ... then that money is wasted."

Kot agreed a 36-turbine project probably wouldn't merit an Industrial Siting Council review. "But our recommendation would be for the initial 36 to still go through the ISC process," he said. "We want to be cautious on this issue."

County officials noted an ISC permit review could have an effect down the line regarding many of the county's requirements for the project, including issues such as the length of setbacks for the turbines.

The county's Planning and Zoning Commission recommended requiring a setback of 110 feet from roads and project boundaries for the turbines. But the Industrial Siting Council could require a different setback.

"The big thing after an ISC process is what they have to say about setback regulations, which are crucial to the whole project," planning and zoning attorney Rich Mathey said. "The state may have their own thoughts on that ... and it might not square with our thinking in Sweetwater County."

Additionally, the BLM is conducting its own environmental study of the proposed wind farm. It will examine the effect of the project on everything from big game to bats to historical trails like the Cherokee Trail, and a variety of other possible impacts to wildlife and cultural resources.

The project could also face some environmental hurdles during any state permitting process if any of the turbines are placed within designated crucial winter range for mule deer and elk or within the state's sage grouse "core areas" that Wyoming officials have identified as prime habitat for the bird.


Source: http://www.casperstartribun...

JUL 5 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/20988-sweetwater-wind-farm-debate-hinges-on-placement-visibility
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