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Chokecherry Environmental Study

Overland Trail Ranch, the future site of part of Power Company of Wyoming's Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project.

The 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm will have no significant impact on the human environment, according to a preliminary assessment released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

The study is one of two site-specific environmental analyses to be done by the BLM. Both stem from a wider 2012 assessment, which approved the wind farm.

The no-impact finding marks the second government action in favor of the project in as many weeks. Last week, the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council voted 7-0 to grant the nearly $5 billion facility a state permit. 

The BLM assessments will likely be finalized sometime this year, leaving only an environmental study of a transmission line serving the wind farm and an eagle take permit for the first 500 turbines to be completed. 

An eagle take permit would allow the wind farm to kill a specified number of eagles and other raptors annually in exchange for conservation measures aimed at reducing avian deaths. A decision from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected next year. 

"There is a lot going on," said Power Company of Wyoming CEO Bill Miller.  "We’re extremely pleased with the approval of the ISC and the permit they will issue as a result of the hearing last week."

Power Company of Wyoming, an Anschutz subsidiary, is the firm seeking to build the wind farm. 

The environmental assessment released this week considers the infrastructure needed to serve the project. The wind farm's construction plans call for a new rail yard off the Union Pacific line to deliver equipment and components to the 219,707-acre development.

Plans also call for a rock quarry to provide the stone for a new haul road running to the facility. 

The second BLM assessment concerns the siting of the first 500 wind turbines. 

Power Company of Wyoming's strategy has been to remove the risk associated with the project by completely securing all permits before seeking agreements to sell the wind farm's power, Miller said. 

The company has spent $45 million on the project to date. 

After the last permits are secured, attention will begin turning toward selling the wind farm's power. In filings with the state, Power Company of Wyoming said it planned to contribute $1.68 billion of the estimated $4.79 billion in construction costs. It will seek to raise the remaining $3.11 billion through debt.

A decision has yet to be made on whether to offer utilities equity in the project or to sign agreements with power supplies to buy the wind farm's electricity, Miller said. The ultimate financing plan will likely be a combination of equity investments and power purchase agreements, he said.  

Much of the company's hopes rely on convincing California to buy Chokecherry and Sierra Madre's power. The Golden State will require 33 percent of all its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. 

Chokecherry and Sierra Madre would represent about 10.5 million megawatt hours annually, or between 12 and 14 percent of what California needs to achieve that aim. 

But efforts to sell Wyoming wind in the nation's most populous state have met a hurdle in the form of Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who would prefer to see California meet its renewable energy standard with electricity produced inside the state. 

In meetings with Brown's office, Power Company of Wyoming representatives have argued that California needs renewable energy from inside and outside the state, Miller said. 

"Gov. Brown has a position that is fully understandable," Miller said. "He is, after all, the governor of the state of California. He would like to use as many California resources for the California market as possible." 

However, California's energy needs outstrip the state's ability to meet them, Miller argued. Wyoming wind, by contrast, is cheap and reliable, he said. A study commissioned by the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority recently found that California ratepayers would save up to $1 billion annually by buying Wyoming wind. 

"For any economy to be competitive, you need competitive energy prices," Miller said.

Power Company of Wyoming is also looking to Nevada and Arizona as possible buyers of Chokecherry and Sierra Madre's electricity.  

The BLM will hold two public meetings to discuss the findings of its first environmental assessment. The first will be held Aug. 25 at the Platte Valley Community Center in Saratoga. The second will be held the following day in Rawlins at the Jeffrey Center.

Each meeting will begin at 4:30 p.m. The public will have until Sept. 10 to submit comments on the draft report. 

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Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow


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