At first, the renewable energy industry had a tough time grasping the scope of the plan. Confused, no. Audacious, yes.
Tilting at Windmills
Just getting the first turbines up and running would take two years. Trains cars long would haul the first batch of turbines to a special staging area where they would be unloaded. To build the roads, the engineers would first have to dig out limestone and gravel from a quarry on the ranch.
Rural Wyoming lacks the manpower for such an endeavor, so workers would have to re-locate to the area. Bill Miller sees nothing special in a wind farm. Finally, installing the turbines would bring its own perils. The wind on the ranch is so ferocious during the day that it would likely blow the turbine shafts over before the workers could slip them into the foundations.
Instead, the engineering plan arranged for workers to assemble them at three in the morning, when the gusts are tamer. Which would mean that Wyoming wind could fetch the same high prices as any green power generated inside California. If Miller could navigate the bureaucracies involved—no small task—the Power Company of Wyoming could end up being more profitable than any gusher he had ever dug.
Carl Zichella, of the Natural Resources Defense Council , was among the first to connect with Miller, who took him on several tours of the ranch. Zichella became an instant evangelist. But Zichella has seen grand plans flounder before. The layout is a legacy of the Union Pacific Act of , in which Congress tried to finance the construction of a rail line to California by allowing the railroad to sell alternating parcels of land along the route.
Today, this means that though Anschutz technically controls all the land on the ranch, he needs to meet more federal environmental standards for his wind farm than he would if the land were entirely private. That was seven and a half years ago. The environmental review process is still under way. It roams across the Western United States.
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It flies only when it has to, and then not very far or high. Not surprisingly, it often serves as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for coyotes, mountain lions, even badgers.
Because its habitat—sage brush—has been disappearing, the U. Fish and Wildlife Service has flirted for close to a decade with the idea of including it on the endangered species list. And he has created sage grouse implementation teams—a whole state bureaucracy, really—devoted to protecting the bird. In , when Miller first looked at the map of core sage grouse habitat, he was dismayed: There was a black line drawn with a marker encircling much of the ranch.
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It essentially cordoned off tens of thousands of acres from any development. If the black line was set in stone, the project was dead.
But Miller realized that whoever had drawn up the map knew little about the ranch or sage grouse habitat. No such data existed. So Miller set out to create it. He brought on a team of botanists and habitat specialists. It is hand-painted to match sage grouse feathers. South-central Wyoming has some of the only Class 7 winds in the nation. Hit with a spotlight, the sage grouse would freeze, and a biologist would jump from the vehicle, creep toward the bird, trap it in a large hoop net, and strap on the transmitter.
Since , the team has put tags on birds. For the past five years, the transmitters have allowed the teams to collect hundreds of thousands of data points, essentially dots on a map, that document how the sage grouse spend their time. It is the most sophisticated study of sage grouse ever conducted. As the research dragged on, Miller began to worry that his wind farm project had turned into a protracted environmental research project. He had planned turbines in that spot. The more bird data that came in, the more complicated the situation became. When Jacobson submitted his seventh major redesign, the Bureau of Land Management gave the green light.
They had spent four years counting sage grouse. But now momentum was picking up. Miller was relieved. But he soon realized that the wind farm was still far from a done deal. The authorization Salazar signed was conditional. In it expanded the act to include golden eagles as well. Killing either species, even accidentally, is a felony.
Those meter-long turbine rotors, moving at up to miles per hour at their tips, are giant guillotines. The Eagle Protection Act can turn a wind farm into a criminal enterprise.
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Fish and Wildlife Service created in If a project can demonstrate that it has done everything possible to mitigate the loss of eagles, a certain number can perish. So far, Fish and Wildlife has issued a total of one long-term eagle take permit—to a wind farm in California. Marshals Service. But after work, he packs up and goes straight home.
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