A huge gust of renewable energy will blow into Carbon County, Wyo., joining its portfolio of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium resources. And it could benefit power-hungry states in the West.
County commissioners recently approved a conditional use permit that clears the way for Power Company of Wyoming LLC to build a 1,000-turbine wind farm — the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre (CCSM) Wind Energy Project — that could generate more than 2,500 megawatts of power, create 100-plus permanent jobs and pay property taxes to the county of $291 million to $437 million over the 20-year life of the facility, according to the power company.
“There’s just no question that it’s going to improve the quality of life,” said Terry Weickum, chairman of the County Board. “Not to say that everybody is enthusiastic about the project, but I am.”
Power Company of Wyoming says it would be one of the largest wind farms in North America. After state approvals are received, construction is slated to begin in 2013.
Weickum voted in favor of the permit, as did his two board colleagues. While that includes Vice Chairman Jerry Paxton, he said he voted with mixed emotions. He’s no fan of wind energy, but the project meets all criteria for approval. He and other residents worry about wind turbines dotting the county’s wide-open spaces — Wyoming is the least-populated U.S. state, with 568,000 residents spread over 97,814 square miles. Several people who spoke at a public hearing also expressed concerns about strobe lights atop the towering structures spoiling pristine nighttime vistas, but most favored the project, Weickum said. State law mandates wind developers to have plans for how the turbines will be dismantled at the end of their lifespan and for restoration of the land.
“It’s not without problems, that’s for certain,” Paxton said, “but certainly it will allow us to diversify our revenue stream, which has been one of our biggest problems over the years.” The county’s economy is heavily dependent on the vagaries of natural gas prices, which currently are low.
“The situation has been pretty grim for us the last few years,” he added, “and it certainly would be nice as a county commissioner to have some revenue that we could stick away and could take care of all the deferred maintenance issues that we’ve had over the years.”
Carbon County, population 15,786, would also receive 60 percent of an estimated $149 million in energy production taxes paid to the state over 20 years.
The project has the potential to generate enough power for 1 million homes, which presents another opportunity — since the state has just over half that many residents. Paxton said the utilities in the state already produce far more energy from coal than can be consumed in Wyoming. But transmission bottlenecks make it difficult to export that power.
One advantage of the CCSM project and others like it, he said, is the transmission lines associated with them. “We have an abundance of natural gas and coal here. So were looking at the bigger picture,” he said. “You can put electrons on that same line that are generated by fossil fuels. It could open up some markets....”
The project would be built in Wyoming’s “checkerboard” area, a patchwork of federal and privately held land. Half of the project would be on private property and half on public lands within a 320,000-acre ranch south of Rawlins, the county seat, and Sinclair. That brings the U.S. Department of the Interior into the picture. One week after the County Board approved the project’s permit, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that various federal agencies had approved the site as suitable for wind energy development.
“Wyoming has some of the best wind energy resources in the world,” he said, “and there’s no doubt that this project has the potential to be a landmark example for the nation.”