Wind development strives for minimal impactWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Rawlins – Soon, 1,000 new wind turbines may soon be standing in Carbon County as part of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, currently underway with the Power Company of Wyoming, LLC (PCW).
“The setting for this project is on some of the highest wind resource land in the country,” remarks Ryan Jacobson, the director of engineering and construction at PCW.
Located on the Oregon Trail Cattle Company Ranch south of Rawlins, PCW is developing the wind farm as well as the TransWest Express (TWE) transmission line that will carry the wind energy to a hub south of Las Vegas, Nev.
“We’ll use DC technology, capable of transporting about 3,000 megawatts. It’s a 730-mile transmission line with two-thirds running through federal land,” Jacobson notes.
PCW’s wind farm project has been divided into two phases, each with 500 turbines after full construction. Building will begin on the west side of the site and move east.
“We are also constructing a rail facility that will bring in the wind turbines and most of our equipment,” he adds.
Because equipment will be brought in by rail and offloaded on the Oregon Trail Cattle Company Ranch property, heavy traffic on highways and other public roads will be minimized.
“We are also planning on having a rock quarry on the north end of the site to provide material for the project,” Jacobson continues.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permitting began in 2008 and is now nearing completion.
“It’s a seven-year process that we are hoping to complete this year. Between BLM and the Western Area Power Administration, the final environmental impact statement (EIS) has just been released, and we are hoping to wrap up that process with BLM by the end of this year,” comments Jacobson.
The first step in permitting the wind farm was evaluating the impacts of putting 1,000 turbines on the ranch. That led to a Record of Decision, signed by the Secretary of Energy in 2012.
“The Record of Decision defined the project but didn’t give us any authority to move forward. Since then, we have been developing site-specific, detailed plans to define how we are going to construct the project,” Jacobson explains.
Plans, which are submitted to the BLM for review, describe elements such as the footprint of the project and what equipment will be used for construction.
“We have completed that step for our haul road, our rail facility and our quarry. We have submitted all of our information for the first 500 turbines, and we anticipate that step being completed within the next year,” he says.
PCW has also been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to minimize impacts on eagle populations near the site.
“We are going through a separate process with FWS with regards to bald and golden eagles,” he notes. “That process is ongoing, and we anticipate it to be completed for the first phase of the project by the end of 2015.”
Developers have also done wildlife monitoring, nest surveys, sage grouse tracking and tracking of other bird species using avian radar.
“We have already begun comprehensive conservation measures on the site to limit the impact the project is going to have on wildlife,” Jacobson explains.
The team has also done extensive measurement and planning for vegetation levels and documented erosion potential throughout the project site to keep construction away from high-erosion areas.
“We have looked at everything from weed management to erosion control, watershed monitoring, environmental compliance, decommissioning plans and decommissioning bonding between the BLM process and the state process,” Jacobson states.
Extensive planning has been done to design a wind project that nets the highest possible production while best utilizing the land.
“There are techniques we have used to minimize miles of roads and disturbance. We have also applied setbacks set by the BLM and the state and local governments so we can avoid impact to watersheds, wildlife, neighboring properties and public rights of way,” Jacobson continues.
Less than 2,000 acres should be disturbed over the total 320,000 acres that make up the Oregon Trail Cattle Company Ranch. The rest of the property will continue to be used for agricultural purposes as it is today.
Once all of the permits are finalized, construction is expected to begin in 2016. The rail facility and road infrastructure will be built first.
“We won’t see any turbines until 2019. Part of the reason for that is there is no sense in standing the turbines up if there is nowhere for the power to go,” explains Jacobson.
Start to finish, the total construction timeline for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project is estimated to be eight years.
“As far as the longevity of the equipment, 25 to 30 years is the expectation,” Jacobson adds.
Most wind farms break even financially at around 10 years of operation, and Jacobson is confident that this particular project may become profitable even sooner than that.
When the wind farm becomes obsolete, he comments, “We have an obligation to BLM and to the state to take it down completely and reclaim the site.”
Ryan Jacobson spoke on May 15 at the 2015 Agricultural Bankers Conference in Rawlins.