By Jordan Achs
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — The views enjoyed while driving along U.S. Highway 287 south of Laramie could include an array of wind turbines if the Rail Tie Wind Project is completed as planned.
ConnectGen, a renewable energy development company based out of Houston, Texas, has started the permitting stages of constructing a 504-megawatt wind farm stretching across public and private land on both sides of the highway.
The project would encompass 26,000-acres close to Tie Siding.
Specific details like the exact number, model and size of the turbines are still being decided. Initial projections show between 84 and 151 turbines, ranging from 3-6 megawatts per turbine, could be constructed.
ConnectGen held an open house and public scoping session Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn, which saw a packed room as project leads explained the process in place to get to where construction can start by the end of 2021.
The company has a goal of beginning operations by the end of 2022. The project expects to add a total of 516-related construction jobs during its 18-month construction, and a total of 61 total jobs from the operations side of the project.
Additionally, ConnectGen expects the project to contribute a total of $178.5 million in state and county tax revenues over the project lifetime.
Citing Wyoming’s notorious ever-present winds as a draw, John Kuba, ConnectGen’s director of environmental affairs, said the location was chosen because the development would be much more competitive than potential locations in less-windy states.
“Wyoming, and specifically Albany County, has a great wind resource; we wouldn’t be here developing a renewable project if it didn’t,” Kuba told the crowd. “Developing wind projects in areas like this that are very windy and have strong wind resources really help drive down the costs of that renewable product.”
The scoping session was one requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act review, which is needed as ConnectGen tries to get the Western Area Power Administration’s approval to connect the wind project to the nearby Ault-Craig 345-kiloVolt transmission line, another reason the location was chosen.
A part of the U.S. Department of Energy, WAPA’s approval for the connection to is obtained via a lengthy process.
For example, the federal review triggers the need for an environmental impact study, which has its own requirements for data collection and public comment, including a two-year wildlife impact study.
In addition to the public comment taken during the scoping session and as the EIS is drafted, a public hearing and 45-day comment period will be required once the draft is complete.
Beyond the EIS, the NEPA process also includes electrical system impact studies, project descriptions and other applications and requirements.
Mark Wieringa, the NEPA document manager for WAPA, said the governmental agency’s extensive federal review process is just for the transmission line interconnection portion, not the entire project.
“We’re not a regulatory agency,” he added. “We do not authorize this project as a whole; that’s the job of the state to do that. We are involved up to the point of making sure the interconnection part is taken care of.”
In addition to work to comply with the NEPA process, the company is also working to sign wind leases with public and private landowners, collect wind data and conduct electrical system studies.
Project manager Amanda MacDonald, an associate with ConnectGen, said the project is also subject to review by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Council as well as the Albany County Planning and Zoning Commission.
“This project is going to go through three separate thorough processes — a federal review process, state review process, county review process — so it will be a very thorough permitting process,” MacDonald said.
She added the state and county portions of the processes are expected to start later this year. Each will have its own public comment opportunities or requirements.
Both the project leads with ConnectGen and Wieringa said they desired plenty of public feedback.
“Local information is vital; you guys know things we don’t,” Wieringa said at the meeting. “What we’re looking from you is not so much an opinion on whether you like the project or not but if there are resources you’re concerned about. … Tell us what you know so that we can make this the best process we can and also minimize and eliminate impacts if we possibly can. That’s why we’re all here.”
Some residents ranching, living and operating businesses in the area are already concerned about the impact the project could have.
Paul Montoya, the owner of Vista de la Luna Bed and Breakfast located on the edge of the proposed project, told the Boomerang in an email he’s struggling to see the benefits of the project.
“With very little tax revenue for the state, short term construction work, a visual eyesore for a very historic valley, a potential environmental hazard, loss of business for us and a drop in area property values,” he wrote, “this wind farm proposal is a net loss for the state and county. We hope our state and county officials will recognize this and put a stop to this nonsense.”
Public comment during the scoping period for the NEPA portion is accepted through Jan. 31; those interested can submit emails to Wieringa at [email protected] or attend the public meetings as they are planned throughout the other portions of the process.
The project website, www.railtiewind.com/, includes additional project information, project diagrams and additional options for making public comment.