ROLLING HILLS — The glare of the sunlight burned gold in Jason Martin’s irises as he scanned the miles of undulating land from his perch 35 feet above the Powder River Basin. Long shadows crossed the grassland and sage below him in rhythmic cycles as the turbine blades caught the morning wind, churning power into PacifiCorp’s electricity grid. An annoying whistling sound found its way through a window and into the small office bound by four walls of glass.
It’d been a quiet morning so far for Martin, a 36-year-old biologist from Casper. In some offices, that would mean the phone didn’t ring or the emails didn’t pile in with an irritating ripple of alerts. But out here, in a steel tower similar to those forest rangers once used to scan for fire in the mountains of Wyoming, “quiet” meant the eagles weren’t flying.
Martin is an eagle watcher, a technician for West. Inc., which contracts with Wyoming’s largest utility company, Rocky Mountain Power, to keep watch for the giant birds of prey. His job is to sit alone in a tower for seven hours a day with binoculars in hand waiting for golden eagles, and the occasional bald eagle, to show up as a spot in the sky. When he spots them, Martin’s job is to shut down the turbines in their way.
Wind turbines are a common sight in eastern Wyoming, though perhaps not as emblematic as trucks hauling rig equipment to and from oil wells or train cars topped neatly with Powder River Basin coal, sedately following the tracks from Cheyenne to the Montana border. Wind jobs aren’t counted during busts and are watched with trepidation during booms, and wind production taxes don’t make or break counties the way coal does for Campbell or gas does for Sweetwater. But there are thousands of wind jobs, from the people who scale the towers to check a finicky motor to the bird watchers.
There are large wind farms along a windy belt that starts in the mixed grasslands of eastern Wyoming and shifts down south into the sage brush steppe around Rawlins. And there are more to come.
PacifiCorp is hurriedly working its way through a repower project that will take down its current fleet of wind blades and replace them with ones that are 20 feet longer. The change will increase the capacity of each of the turbines north of Rolling Hills from 1.5 gigawatts to 1.8 gigawatts.
The same repower, new blades and new nacelles, will take place across the company’s wind fleet in Wyoming. Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company PacifiCorp are also building three new wind farms farther south in Wyoming, while private developers are focused on their own large wind farms — from a 1,000-turbine farm south of Rawlins being developed by a subsidiary of oil and gas firm Anschutz to a potential 800-turbine project proposed outside of Medicine Bow by Viridis Eolia, a Venezuelan energy firm.
If the projects currently in late-stage development come to life, Wyoming will have doubled its installed wind capacity. Though still falling short of the wind footprint of states like Texas, which currently has 12,793 turbines compared to Wyoming’s 1,005, the Cowboy State holds an incredible energy resource in its gales. The joke about the wind sock that’s always horizontal in Wyoming is also evidence of a resource that many developers want to tap.
Wyoming hasn’t figured out what it wants from its invisible resource.
Endow (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming), an economic diversity push by Gov. Matt Mead, tucks ideas like wind manufacturing into a host of other plans to broaden the economy of fossil fuel dependent Wyoming. The industry doesn’t offer as much in terms of revenue or jobs as fossil fuel industries like coal and oil that fund Wyoming, and wind energy’s presence on the horizon troubles some people. It’s ugly to many who remember a time when the horizon north of Glenrock was broken by nothing but cloud cover, the landscape peppered with the more familiar sights of Wyoming industry: pump jacks and oil rigs.
A recent study from the University of Wyoming study found that the majority of people are certain that wind can bring much-needed money and much-needed jobs to the state, but the boon doesn’t detract from the blight. A majority of the people polled said they were comfortable with more wind energy and more oil and gas development. But for as many people who said wind was good for Wyoming economically, just as many said it was concerning for other reasons.
For some, it’s the view; for others, the sense that wind doesn’t put enough into state and local coffers. And for others, it’s wildlife and habitat changes.
For some, the problem with wind is that it kills birds.
Martin clutched the binoculars to his ribcage. He’s thin, gentle, of medium height, with a baseball cap pulled over his dark hair.
The only movement visible from his perch was a fat buck making its way north to south. In the course of an hour, the mule deer skirted the east edge of the tower down into a gulch where his path was first turned west and then north again by a fence line.
The PacifiCorp wind farm is actually three wind farms: Glenrock, Rolling Hills and Glenrock III. They are built on a former coal mine. The contours of hills and rivulets of dirt, grass and sage are repatriated habitat fashioned over 30 years since the closing of the Dave Johnston Coal Mine. The land is also part of the growing oil activity in the Powder River Basin. There are both new and old wells pumping out oil across the wind farm.
This farm is representative of the state for Luke Martinson, senior manager for West Inc. and a native Wyomingite.
It’s an example of how to curtail impacts to the land in one place, he said, like running power lines or pipes along roads to keep disturbance limited and overlapping.
“It’s the quintessential Wyoming piece of land,” he said. “You got coal to start out with, wind energy, oil and gas, (livestock) activities still going on. If you’re trying to localize impacts, this area has done that.”
The slow days are harder. The lull is broken only by the shiver of wind wrapping around the tower and through the metal grated stairs. That lull threatens the constant surveillance for which the biologists are there. Most listen to podcasts or music and try to stay cool in the hotbox created by the glass windows. They drink coffee. They scan the sky. They lift the binoculars to their eyes and lower them again.
On a slow day, none of the turbines will be stilled and no eagles will show up. On other days, watchers could spot 40. It varies from season to season, day to day.
“It’s a costly endeavor for Pacificorp, to take a turbine that’s running at full power and turn it off, let alone eight of them in a line,” said Jonathan Gross, PacifiCorp’s senior environment and safety analyst for wind operations.
West shuffles the workload for its technicians so that they aren’t in the tower for days on end. The base of each of the 158 turbines on the wind farm is examined for bird carcasses once a month. The West employees set up decoys, all part of the larger focus to direct raptors and eagles away from danger. And they compile data, like all scientists.
Biologists like to be alone, joked Gross. The 39-year-old biologist first worked for PacifiCorp at the Jim Bridger coal mines, repelling down a high wall to move a raptor nest and working on reclamation. Now he yearns for opportunities to get back out in the field and do what the techs for West do — observe wildlife.
“The actual field work, that’s why we get involved in this work,” Gross said. “You want to get outside, kind of be on your own. Now you got to make an excuse to get out to the bird towers.”
There’s plenty to observe from the tower. The wind site is home to bobcats and antelope, raptors and rabbits. Rebecca Zook, another West technician, once saw a golden eagle take out a young antelope, digging its talons into the spine to sever the nerves and paralyze it as the beast struggled through deep snow. The birds of prey can grow to be massive, with a 6-foot wing span.
No one has seen an eagle hit by turbine blade.
West was founded by an ecologist and a statistician with a focus on a “new wave of science.” Headquartered in Cheyenne, it works on wind projects across the state.
The science around wind and raptors is developing. New ideas like radar and sound bursts or even robots may be able to do what Martin and his coworkers do now — keep the birds from hitting the blades and towers.
It’s exciting science, Martinson said, based on loads of observation but also models and math. And it’s a change from the old school interaction of science with nature. Radar and sound waves serve the same purpose but with a different style than a well-educated animal or wildlife expert watching for birds or collecting carcasses.
But that’s the nature of science and study, Martinson said, to push the envelope. He wants to be a part of that.
“You don’t want to be sitting there while everything else is moving forward,” he said.
For wind energy, the watchers are the best remedy available, and they are actually cutting edge, he said.
PacifiCorp’s work to avoid killing eagles wasn’t widely practiced just a few years ago. When West transitioned into its observance work at the three wind farms after construction in 2009, it used a couple of scientists in trucks posted across the 17-mile long wind site. If the technicians spotted what looked to be an eagle, they’d radio in to the operations and maintenance buildings where PacifiCorp had another employee waiting to turn off the turbines.
But over the years, the biologists’ vigils brought information and answered key questions. When were the eagles active and where? Sunrise-to-sunset shifts were dispensed with in favor of a daily seven-hour watch during the migratory season. The trucks were left behind and the two towers built, one to the north end of the wind site and one in the south central area.
The south tower is where Martin kept vigil on a windy morning in mid-November.
The skies were clear from the watchtower at 11 a.m. all the way to the bump of dark green and brown on the southern horizon that marks the beginning of the Laramie Mountain Range. Cranes brought in as part of PacifiCorp’s repower work sat immobile across the northern hills, like children’s toys left behind in the yard. The turbines scooped through the air with their steady rhythm.
A dark brown shape flitted across the blue sky in the east, gliding across invisible currents, headed directly across the narrow width of the wind farm.
The bird was flying high but not above the 263-foot towers of steel.
From the watchtower, Martin sent a signal to turn the blades in the apparent eagle’s path, like shifting a sail away from the wind. Seven of the fiberglass and balsam wood blades lost momentum.
A minute passed before the blades’ orbit failed to make a full circle. The bird kept coming. Martin directed the next seven blades to turn out of the wind, staying ahead of the eagle’s path. He targeted a third zone of four turbines to shift before the first seven towers were fully quiet.
The bird cut through the path of stillness and passed out of eyesight into the dark background of the mountain.
Martin would wait 15 minutes, watching for the bird’s return, before he’d decide whether it was safe to capture the wind again.
Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the name of Luke Martinson of West Inc.