LARAMIE — Following a public hearing for the proposed Rock Creek Wind Project this week, the Albany County Board of Commissioners has 45 days to make a decision about whether to approve its wind energy conversion systems permit.
The commission declined to make a decision Tuesday, as commissioners wanted time to ask more questions about the project in coming weeks.
Chicago-based Invenergy has proposed the 590-megawatt project that calls for up to 129 turbines on mostly private land about 25 miles north of Laramie between Interstate 80 and Rock River.
Most of the project area, about 37,000 acres, would be located in Albany County, with about 6,000 acres in Carbon County.
The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the project by a 3-1 vote in November. The Carbon County Board of Commissioners also has giving it a green light.
Albany County Planner David Gertsch told the commission that the application was complete according to the county’s regulations.
“They’ve addressed everything that’s required,” he said. “They’ve submitted the required reports and information that are needed for this application.”
Chase Marston, the project’s lead developer, said the Office of State Lands and Investments is scheduled to consider the project at its February meeting. Six to eight turbines would sit on state land.
“They don’t see any issue with February as a timeline,” Marston said. “We don’t see any issues with that as well, so we’re going to continue as planned.”
The project area is located in a remote part of the county with just four private landowners involved. Neighboring wind projects already established in the vicinity occupy much smaller areas, which Marston attributed to a need that newer, larger wind turbines be spread across more acreage.
“As turbines get larger they do need more space,” he said.
Invenergy’s goal is to transfer ownership of the project to PacifiCorp at its completion, and Marston said he expects that agreement to be finalized early next year.
Construction could start as soon as 2023, with operation targeted for the end of 2024.
Albany County’s regulations require that energy companies request permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use aircraft detection lighting systems atop towers. That step typically happens late in a project’s development once final turbine locations have been decided.
“We don’t see any real reason for them to not approve any turbines in that area,” Marston said.
Marston said Invenergy hasn’t decided on a turbine model yet and is considering several manufactured by Vestas Wind Systems and GE Wind Energy.
In answering questions from Commissioner Pete Gosar, Marston said the turbine model, number of turbines and final layout would depend on information still being gathered, such as engineering and environmental studies and supply chain availability.
“We’ve permitted up to 129 turbines, but with our current layout we only need 111 to reach our target capacity,” he said.
Gosar said he didn’t feel comfortable deciding whether to approve the project with so many variables still undetermined.
“I feel like I need time to do due diligence,” he said. “I’m not for or against the project.”
Attorney Greg Weisz, representing Rock Creek Wind LLC, said the project could move ahead even without the state land component, if necessary. Consideration of impacts to historic sites or wildlife are handled at the state level, and PacifiCorp has already signaled its support.
“If we don’t get approval today, what else do you need to know?” he asked the commission.
Marston said projects of this scale need flexibility to incorporate input from engineers as well as agencies such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We permit the largest possible impact so that we can go smaller and bring it down in scale,” he said.
Commissioner Heber Richardson said he didn’t think any new information would come to light in the next 45 days that would alter anyone’s perspective on the project.
“The questions have been answered from a legal perspective,” he said. “I don’t think my subjective curiosities about it rise to the level of a failure to satisfy the findings of fact and conclusions of law.”
Commissioner Sue Ibarra said she appreciated Gosar’s caution and didn’t think taking more time would hamper the project.
“I’m willing to take the time,” she said.
During the public hearing, county resident Anne Brande urged the commission to consider the cumulative impact of continuing to approve large-scale wind projects.
“We are now an industrialized zone, and it’s picking up its pace because we’re available,” she said. “People are genuinely concerned.”
Kevin Kilty, a retired engineering professor, echoed that sentiment in wondering how much land should be ceded to wind projects.
“We analyze these projects in isolation, but now we appear to have several projects going on at one time,” he said. “Someone needs to take that into account.”
Korry Lewis, an attorney for the Wheatland Irrigation District, said income from the project would offset expenses for the hundreds of farmers and ranchers in the district. The district owns the Ringsby Ranch, which is one of the landowners within the project area.
“I cannot overstate the major impact the wind farm will have on the Wheatland community and Platte County as a whole,” she said.
Landowner Steve Booth said his ranch has been approached by three other energy companies over the years wanting to develop wind on the property, but in each case he and his family didn’t feel those projects would respect the land and their ranching operation. With Invenergy, they decided to move forward.
“We feel this will be a great benefit with minimal impact to our ranching operations,” he said.