On Jan. 6, the El Paso County Planning Commission denied, by a 6-3 vote, a request from NextEra Energy Resources to establish a new Wind and/or Energy Solar Generation Plan Overlay District related to the Golden West Wind Energy Project.
The overlay district is the area in which the additional requirements and standards for wind or solar energy projects apply. The proposal included the following: relocating almost all of the 145 turbines, increasing the maximum height of the turbines from 427 feet to 453 feet, rerouting a portion of the approved transmission line corridor near Falcon; and relocating and reconfiguring the project substation, operations and maintenance facility, the lay-down yard (area used during construction to store equipment and park vehicles) and temporary batch plant sites.
NextEra had also submitted a 1041 permit amendment application required for the construction of the project, which the planning commission denied as well.
Because the planning commission is just an advisory board, the proposal and amendment application will still be presented to the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners. If the project is approved by the BOCC, David Gil, NextEra project developer, said they plan to break ground on the project in March and will hopefully be producing power by the end of the year.
According to the January 2015 issue of The New Falcon Herald, NextEra bought the project from Fowler Energy in December 2013, after the BOCC approved the original project plans. Besides the 147 turbines, the plans also included 25 miles of transmission line that would connect with the Jackson Fuller Substation on Woodmen Road. The portion of the transmission line that NextEra would like to reroute was originally going to be buried, but NextEra’s plans call for the entire length of line to be above ground.
Rerouting transmission lines a big issue
Donna Bryant owns two properties close to the transmission lines that NextEra wants to reroute. She said if she had known about the changes at the time she purchased the properties, she would not have offered “a dollar” for them. “I bought this house 14 months ago. I offered more than the asking price because I wanted the view,” Bryant said. “I’m a combat vet, and I’m here in my retirement home — and I don’t want to be encroached upon.”
Another resident, Don Harrow, is concerned about property values.
“One of my biggest concerns with the changing of the transmission lines from the approved routing is all the property values that will be affected,” Harrow said. His property would also be affected by the overhead transmission lines. “Instead of using the approved routing and having to spend money to bury 3 miles of cable, they would rather affect hundreds of people’s lives by putting huge transmission lines near our property,” he said. “They can say what they want to, but common sense tells you ... it’s going to impact your property value.”
Gil said the original plans to bury the transmission lines were not feasible.
“Originally, the plan was for 25 miles of transmission line, with approximately 3.75 miles underground,” Gil said. “We identified a number of issues and concerns with that portion from the get-go. Most of the line was overhead to begin with, and it was in the previous plan that only a very small portion of the 3.75 miles was underground.”
Concerns from Meadow Lake Airport that the transmission lines would interfere with flight operations prompted Fowler Energy to design a plan for underground transmission lines. However, Gil said NextEra worked with Meadow Lake to reroute the lines and set them back far enough to ensure that flight operations would not be affected.
Gil said NextEra knew the previously approved route would not work when they purchased the project. At the planning commission meeting, Kevin Gildea, NextEra director of development, said the project, as it was approved in 2013, was not viable.
Amy Lathen, county commissioner, said the two previous owners of the wind farm — Clipper Windpower and Golden West Power Partners — testified to the viability of the original plans to bury the transmission lines when the BOCC approved the project in 2013. However, Lathen said she voted against the project. She would not comment on how she might vote on the new plans because they have not been presented to the board.
$1.62 million paid to county
Larry Mott, an engineer and president of G.E.S. Tech Group Inc., has more than 30 years of experience as an expert in conventional and alternative energy systems. Mott has been speaking out publicly against the wind farm, and has contacted the United States Attorney General’s office, questioning the $1.62 million the previous wind farm owners gave to the county. In a letter to the attorney general, Mott wrote that the $1.62 million already paid to the county could “prejudice the neutrality of the BOCC,” as they make a decision on NextEra’s proposal.
Gil said the money covers services the county has already provided, along with the permitting process, which is mainly for the overlay district and the 1041 permit. “In addition, there is a number of site development plans and construction permits required ... if we don’t get the project approved, we don’t get the money back,” he said. “And there is no obligation on the county’s part to approve the project or the permitting or anything based on the payment.”
In a follow-up email, Gil said the county will receive additional payments if the project is approved. The payments include $200,000 for mitigating impacts to county parks; annual reimbursement of ongoing costs to the county; and another $50,000 every year to the county until the contract with NextEra terminates.
Gil said he is unaware of any internal or federal investigation regarding the money exchange with the county.
Mott also serves as the director for District 2 for the Upper Big Sandy Water District Board. He said the NextEra wind farm project will require water for two main elements of construction: making concrete and dust control.
Based on his knowledge of the Upper Big Sandy aquifer, Mott said, “There would be enough water that could legally be sold from these wells to cover the concrete portion, but there is not sufficient water that could come from those wells that could cover the dust control portion.”
NextEra is planning to use “existing permitted municipal and/or private industrially or commercially permitted sources for the provision of water supplies needed during construction,” according to the proposal.
“We’ve talked to a number of people and parties who have said that they have sufficient water for sale, but we’re sensitive to the concerns; and we’ll follow all the laws for whatever water we do get,” Gil said.
Buying and leasing properties
NextEra needs to have their properties “locked up” before they submit their permits, Gil said. The company purchased a 15-acre parcel last June for $274,900 to accommodate their transmission lines. “The only way to get the easement was to buy it,” Gil said. “If, for some reason the project doesn’t go through, we will just own the property. That’s a risk our company takes. It was purchased in the same timeline as we were getting the easements on all the other properties.”
Many landowners are willing to lease part of their properties to NextEra, which already has more than 150 leases with property owners.
“Those overhead transmission lines will be on a mile of my property,” said Bob Wilcox, a rancher and board member for the Colorado Farm Bureau. He has leased part of his property to NextEra. “A lot of people don’t have property involved,” Wilcox said. “They are complaining about eye pollution.” But Wilcox said property rights trump the complaints.
Richard Wilson owns a large ranch in the area and has also agreed to lease a portion of his property to NextEra. Wilson said if the project doesn’t get approved, he will likely split up his ranch and sell it in smaller parcels, which means added development in the area. He said leasing the property seemed like a good alternative — a “win-win.”
Although Lathen didn’t vote for the wind farm, she supports people’s rights to lease their properties. However, she said, “One of the reasons I did not support it is because there is a lot of impact to the people out there.”
Jay Kennedy, Falcon resident, agrees. “We as homeowners have the right to do with our property what we want, except, there are covenants and rules and laws that say you can’t do some things without certain permission to keep the value of the properties around you. It’s unconscionable for anyone to profit at my expense, and that’s all this is.”
Ice throws and megawatts
Mott also presented concerns about ice throws — a buildup of ice on the rotar blades of the turbines. According to a General Electric safety manual, for the turbines NextEra plans to use, the danger zone for ice throws around the turbines is 902 feet. Mott said the proposed plans show Harrisville Road within that danger zone.
Gil said the danger zone is only applicable if ice detectors are not installed, which this wind farm will have. “We have ice detectors,” Gil said. “None of our other wind farms run during ice conditions, and these won’t, either.”
“I’m not affected personally by the project,” Mott said. But he said he believes people are being exploited with wrong information about the engineering science.
“The project has been sold to the public as a 250 megawatt facility; when, in fact, due to the non-dispatchable nature of wind power, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission rates this wind farm at 31.25 megawatts,” Mott said. “This is a miniscule amount of power in comparison to the 34,000 acres that will be adversely impacted and the lives of the El Paso County residents that will be negatively affected.”
In an email to The New Falcon Herald, Gil wrote that the project has a 250 megawatt contract with the Public Service Company of Colorado.
Gil said if the BOCC does not approve the project, it will mean a loss to the county. “This is a $400 million project that could employ hundreds of people and contribute significantly to the economy,” he said. Gil said that NextEra has also done extensive studies on the position of the turbines and their impact on people and wildlife.
Steve Stengel, director of communications for NextEra, said the amount of opposition to the project is comparable to other projects they manage.