Building a wind farm in Wyoming isn’t easy.
Developers must go through a maze of regulatory hurdles at multiple levels of government before even breaking ground. But 2020 has been a big year for the growth of wind energy in Wyoming, with hundreds of new megawatts of wind capacity coming online and new projects launching along the way.
Last week, I checked in with Amanda MacDonald, who is overseeing the development of a new 504-megawatt wind farm proposed for 26,000 acres of private and state land in southeast Albany County. She’s with the Houston-based renewable energy company ConnectGen. I wanted to hear about the status of the wind project and learn what steps a company like ConnectGen must take to make a wind farm happen.
In the early stages of development, MacDonald and her team at ConnectGen created a desktop model to consider potential sites for the project. They had to weigh a plethora of factors, like where sage grouse habitats, military training routes and migration corridors exist. Then they also looked for where the wind blows best and where they may have transmission line access.
“By crunching all of that information together, pretty quickly it narrowed down (our options) to just a few good spots within the state of Wyoming,” MacDonald said.
Because the state has vast open land and a reliable, strong wind source, many people think a ton of potential locations exist to set up a wind farm in Wyoming, she said. In fact, it’s the opposite. After taking into account the numerous constraints like technical restrictions, site-specific permitting requirements and buffer zones, very little land is left to choose from.
Developers at ConnectGen narrowed their best option down to a site in Albany County with prime wind conditions and available transmission lines, among other attractive features. Soon after, the company started reaching out to local and state government agencies, nonprofits and community members on the ground to learn more about the area.
About 80% of the Rail Tie project area is located on private land and 20% on state land. But the project still needs to pass a federal environmental review, because ConnectGen wants to hook up to the Ault-Craig 345-kilovolt transmission line operated by the Western Area Power Administration, or WAPA, a federal agency.
WAPA is a federal power administration and marketing arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. If WAPA approves the interconnection request, no new transmission lines will need to be constructed as part of the project, according to the company. WAPA is on track to publish a draft environmental impact statement for the project in February. That will launch a public comment period. A public hearing will also be held to gather feedback during that period.
In addition to the federal environmental review process, ConnectGen still also needs to submit permit applications to Albany County and the state’s Industrial Siting Council. Once those processes are started, there will be additional opportunities for public engagement.
Construction and operation of the Rail Tie project could create 136 direct jobs during its 35-year lifespan, the company said. In addition, ConnectGen anticipates the Rail Tie project would generate $133.5 million in taxes for the county and $45 million for the state over its lifetime.
Some Albany County residents have worried wind development like this could compromise viewsheds or public safety. But several residents have also spoken firmly in support of making the county an attractive place for wind energy developers. At a Sept. 15 county commission public hearing on wind development, Laramie business owner Katrina Cox spoke about her hope for the Rail Tie project.
“When we bring industry into our communities, not only is it bringing in new jobs, it provides more money for our town and schools,” Cox said. “It also is going to bring cleaner air and water, more reliable electricity supply and stable energy prices.
“During this time of COVID, our small businesses are hurting,” she added. “We need a business like this to help contribute to our community right now.”
Last week in energy news:
Bankrupt coal firm Blackjewel’s battle in federal court entered its final stretch last week when attorneys for the insolvent company presented a plan for exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But the plan leaves many questions unanswered, including the status of unpaid debts, workers’ compensation and the future of several idle coal sites.
A federal court announced last week it would uphold the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to block a proposed joint venture by leading coal firms Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Resources Inc., in a move that could have widespread implications for coal production in the Powder River Basin. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri affirmed the federal government’s decision to stop the joint venture due to concerns it could stifle competition, according to court documents.
OIL & GAS
Encore Green Environment, an agricultural firm focused on reusing wastewater from oil and gas activity, launched its first pilot project in Wyoming. On Tuesday, the company applied cleaned water from a well site near landowner Don Brown’s property in Pine Bluffs. The event marked the first time the company tested its new process at this scale. It plans to treat up to 7,000 barrels of water for this site alone.
A tax holiday extended to oil and gas operators in Wyoming during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic came to an end this week. The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reset the state’s conservation tax to .0005, or five-tenths of a mill, on Thursday. A mill levy is equivalent to the number of dollars an oil and gas producer must pay for every $1,000 of assessed value of production.
WIND & SOLAR
The COVID-19 pandemic delivered historic blows to Wyoming’s economy during this year’s second quarter, according to a new report published last week by Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division. The report shows the sheer scale of the economic fallout induced by the pandemic, which spared few of the state’s industries. The economic recession dealt counties dependent on coal, oil and natural gas production a particularly shocking punch between April and June, causing analysts to hark back to the last energy downturn in 2016. But Carbon County offered a small bright spot in the otherwise dark economic picture for the state. The county’s taxable sales shot up by over 108% when compared to the same quarter in 2019. That was in part thanks to ambitious wind energy projects continuing construction in the region. The state’s leading utility, Rocky Mountain Power, has been busy in Carbon County building and repowering several wind farms, not to mention expanding transmission lines.
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency by executive order on Wednesday, asserting the country’s dependence on other nations for the supply of dozens of minerals posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security and the economy. The executive order takes measures to boost domestic production and strengthen supply chains of 35 critical minerals, including uranium, vanadium and rare earth elements, among several others.
CONSERVATION & PUBLIC LANDS
A coal-bed methane company called US Realm Powder River received a 96% reduction in royalty rates from the federal government during a pandemic-related royalty reduction program. The company, which has filed for bankruptcy, already owes $4 million in unpaid natural gas royalties, according to court documents (via Buffalo Bulletin).
Quote of the week
“My sense is that there will be very little cash. But it’s really hard to know at this time.”
— Joshua Macey, a University of Chicago law professor, said on the potential funding available to settle creditors’ claims at the end of coal firm Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.
Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry @camillereports