The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project will be like nothing Wyoming has ever seen.
As many as 1,000 wind turbines will eventually rise from the ground on the Overland Trail Ranch, just south of Rawlins. The project would double the number of wind turbines in the state: In 2012, 996 towers in Wyoming produced electricity.
About 220,000 acres have been set aside by Power Company of Wyoming for turbine development. That’s roughly 344 square miles. The state of Rhode Island, for reference, is about 1,200 square miles.
The $5 billion project is set for construction near the end of 2014 and production around 2019. It’s expected to produce between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts of power.
The farm would quickly become the country’s largest. The Alta Wind Energy Center in California, possibly the largest project in the world, has a capacity of about 1,000 megawatts.
Chokecherry and Sierra Madre has garnered national attention. President Barack Obama listed the farm as a national priority project for renewable energy. In October, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar personally visited Wyoming to sign off on the federal environmental review of the project plan.
But for all the attention Chokecherry and Sierra Madre have gotten, few have paid much attention to the groundwork.
Crews began a detailed analysis of each turbine site in April, moving into houses and apartments in Rawlins for the rest of the year. They’ll go over each site chosen to host a machine. That’s 1,000 sites needing analysis.
Planning, permitting, patience
Garry Miller likes to compare permitting a wind farm to permitting a housing subdivision.
If Chokecherry and Sierra Madre is the subdivision, he says, then each turbine is a house, with driveways and water mains to be planned.
Only a small portion of ground in the project area — about 1,500 acres — will be disturbed.
Each turbine must be individually approved by the federal Bureau of Land Management, whose record of decision in favor of the project is basically an approval of an overall plan, not specific details.
“What we’re doing now is developing building plans for each turbine — or house,” Miller, the company’s vice president of land and environmental affairs, said in April. “They will be submitted to the BLM and county for approval and final review.”
But before specific plans for a wind farm can be approved, they must be devised and studied. And before that, you have to make sure there’s enough wind to be developed.
In 2007, PCW staff installed 10 wind towers at the ranch. The towers help the company to better understand the subtleties of wind south of Rawlins, a difficult-to-predict resource.
“They really help us hone in on what conditions are specifically on our site, how they change, how they’re conducive to development and which areas are better than others,” Ryan Jacobson, company director of engineering, said.
The fleet of towers has since grown to 32, continually logging data and helping PCW developers to choose the best spots for turbines. That number may not seem that large in the face of 1,000 turbines, but Jacobson says it is.
“The wind resource campaign on this site is one of the more extensive ones I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Beginning in 2008, Power Company of Wyoming turned its attention to planning the project.
Company staff that year started developing a conceptual plan for Chokecherry and Sierra Madre’s 1,000 turbines, while applying for permits from different government entities.
First, staff must use data to roughly map the components of the wind farm. The model can help to determine which alignments would produce the most efficient output.
Some farms can be mapped in months, but work on this specific project lasted nearly four years, closing in late 2012.
Boots on the ground
Once mapping and planning was complete, the company dispatched teams of scientists to Rawlins.
About 30 workers total begin to study each tentative turbine site, making sure not to cause any cultural or environmental problems.
Each site must be first investigated by a team of engineers. The first group travels from spot to spot via four-wheeler, investigating sites to be sure road access and drainage patterns are appropriate, and that the site can support a turbine. A meteorologist accompanies the group, ensuring that turbines won’t interfere with one another.
If a problem surfaces, the group adjusts the plan. It takes that group about three months to complete work.
A natural resources team follows the first group. The team studies wildlife, vegetation and cultural considerations of each site, making sure no turbine compromises plant or animal habitat or holds any cultural or historical significance.
The second team started reviewing sites early this month, with work ending in the fall. Once complete, plans will again go to the BLM for approval.
More than a bunch of turbines
Siting 1,000 wind towers is exhaustive, but it’s far from the only thing needing planning at Chokecherry and Sierra Madre, two parts of one project.
Each turbine will need an access road. Parts will need to be shipped in via rail, meaning a loading facility is also necessary.
The rail facility — a loop starting on a nearby Union Pacific line — will require up to 35 people to operate. The company plans to install capacity necessary to offload multiple parts and trains simultaneously, but the facility is still being designed.
The most active offloading will happen during the project’s construction, about a five-year process, but Miller said PCW plans to keep the rail facility open for the life of the project. After construction wraps, the facility would be used to bring in new parts, if needed.
Chokecherry to the north and Sierra Madre to the south will also require an extensive system of gravel-topped roads, all maintained by the company.
A 59-mile haul road will lead from the rail facility through the rest of the project, meaning the longest trip from rail to site could take longer than the drive from Casper to Douglas.
The project will also need a system of arterial roads used to access different turbine development areas. Each arterial system would branch off into individual turbine access roads.
Total road distance within the project: 372 miles.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is expected to be permitted for 30 years, although the project life can be extended.
It will take five years to build. By the time it’s complete, it could have taken as long as 11 years to plan.
Miller said the attention paid to the project doesn’t really create any pressure on him and other project staff.
“The pressure we have is pressure we put on ourselves,” he said. “We’re a small team of people, and we tend to be perfectionists.”
That includes making sure the project is done properly, he said. And while the process may be new to some, Miller said it’s not different than what many Wyomingites may be used to.
“The approach we’re taking is not dissimilar to that of the oil and gas industry,” he said, adding that many oil and gas projects are even bigger than PCW’s project.
That includes Continental Divide-Creston, a 1.1-million acre project which could include 20 companies and 8,900 new oil and gas wells.
While Chokecherry and Sierra Madre is a quarter the size of Rhode Island, the project area for Continental Divide is bigger than the state.
Miller laughed when he mentioned the project and how it relates to his plans south of Rawlins.
“Compared to the Continental Divide-Creston,” he said, “we don’t feel it’s that big.”