Wind Resistanceby Jonathan Thompson
High Country News, December 21, 2009
Will the petrocracy -- and greens -- keep Wyoming from realizing its windy potential?
I first see the turbines as I speed along I-25 near Glenrock, Wyo., clutching the steering wheel as I try to avoid being swatted into oblivion by a wind-whipped tanker truck. The windmills look tiny from here, sprouting from the flat beige plain like sunflowers in a neglected field. Wanting a closer look, I take the Glenrock exit, meander through town, cross the North Platte River and soon discover that the landscape is not flat at all. It undulates, sometimes steeply. Railroad tracks run along the low point in a furrow, an age-streaked oil tank nearby. A massive power plant sits by the river; a trailer, its roof weighted down with tires, hunkers into the hillside.
The little car labors up another hill, and there the turbines are again, but this time they rise up from sage and grass like giants, toying with the little shards of light that penetrate the milky, dense frog-belly sky. Their rotors spin neurotically, as though they are desperately waving me away, or warning, perhaps, that all is not what it seems. Maybe Don Quixote wasn't crazy after all.
Wyoming may be the best place in the United States to generate electricity from wind. Thanks to a dip in the Continental Divide as it wends through the state, it has about half of all the top-quality (class 5, 6 and 7) wind in the country. That means that a turbine here can crank out as much as 30 percent more juice than one in, say, Texas or California. With a total population of just half a million, the state has plenty of uninhabited spaces for turbines, and it is famous for welcoming energy development. So companies have stampeded into the Cowboy State, reaching for every gust they can. They put up mobile anemometers alongside windy highways and in the sagebrush sea; their landmen scour ridges and ranches, toting proposals and contracts, hoping to grab their piece of state, federal or private land. Wyoming's governor compares the frenzy to a gold rush.
That rush, however, is faltering. Today, Wyoming has just 1,000 megawatts of wind capacity, one-eighth of what Texas has. Facing regulatory and political uncertainty, at least one wind-farm proposal has been yanked off the table, and the future of others is in doubt. Legislators, wildlife officials and people in the governor's office have sent out increasingly mixed messages about the wind rush -- or onslaught.
It is, indeed, confusing. Because most of the objections to wind farms cite environmental problems, it might appear that Wyoming has finally gone green -- standing up to energy developers in hopes of preserving its wild lands. And many environmentalists do see wind as yet another "clean" energy source with a dark side -- like hydroelectric dams or coalbed methane, which has transformed swaths of the state into drill-rig pincushions.
Look closer, however, and you'll find that much of the resistance to wind actually comes from the fossil fuel industry and the politics it bankrolls. Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the nation and the third-largest producer of natural gas; at least one town is named after an oil company. Severance taxes and royalties from these industries keep the state's government, schools and other services afloat. In an indirect and sometimes convoluted way, wind threatens that old-school energy dynamic. At an August symposium on wind energy at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Aaron Clark, an advisor to the governor, put it candidly: "We can't let wind development hurt the state's revenue stream from extractive minerals."
The conflict manifests itself in two unlikely and disparate characters: The oil-baron scion of one of Wyoming's most influential families, and a chicken-sized bird that may soon be listed as endangered. Wyoming's politics, tumbled by the wind, have become almost as peculiar as the state's mammalian icon, the mythical jackalope.
It's appropriate that some of these politics will play out in Douglas, home to the jackrabbit/antelope hybrid. On a dark and damp October afternoon, some 50 people converge on the Converse County Courthouse's community room, down in the fluorescent-lit basement. Nearly everyone is in jeans and cowboy boots, and at least half wear baseball caps, neckerchiefs and bulky Carhartt vests.
They're here because the county planning commission is considering a moratorium on industrial development in the mountainous part of the county in order to give it time to consider implementing wind-targeted zoning. The fledgling but already sizable Northern Laramie Range Alliance is pushing the moratorium. The group sprang up to prevent "industrialization of the high country" by the wind industry.
The moratorium shouldn't stand a chance. Converse County is one of a handful of Wyoming counties that have no zoning whatsoever, and it has enthusiastically shot down proposals to regulate development in the past. Given the look of tonight's crowd, this attempt at government interference will suffer the same fate. But I soon discover how dramatically the wind has muddled things in these parts. Over the next couple of hours, grizzled ranchers who, on almost any other occasion, might spit before and after they say the word "environmentalist," stand up and tout the benefits of green energy. Classic anti-government conservatives ask the county to bring down the hammer of regulation to save their beloved mountains from energy development. An employee of one of the biggest coal mines in the nation cautions against letting wind turbines go unregulated, the way coalbed methane did.
Then, a tall, lean man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair stands up to speak. For about nine minutes, he holds the floor with pointed comments, sprinkled with humor. "The second most egregious task of government is the denial of the use of a person's private property," he says. "The first is when Sheriff Becker over there takes away your personal liberty." Laughter. He swings his arms and makes a whoosh, whoosh sound to drive home the point that turbines are noisy. He worries about an influx of workers infecting the area with Gillette Syndrome -- the social toll that a boom can take on the local community. Property values will plummet, he warns. The county should "take a deep breath and adopt the moratorium, because there are a lot of impacts that come with major development." He seems utterly at ease, matter-of-factly weaving biblical references into his comments. His arguments sound heartfelt and convincing. He is a dyed-in-the wool Wyoming oilman, and his name is Diemer True.
Drive from Douglas to Casper on I-25, and you can't miss the gargantuan bronze sculpture welcoming you to "Oil City." From a distance, against a backdrop of a flaring refinery, it looks like a replica of the famous Marine Corps War Memorial. But get closer, and you realize that instead of Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, Wyoming's conquering heroes are four hard-hatted roughnecks drilling for oil. One of the 15-foot figures bears the likeness of H.A. "Dave" True, perhaps the state's most famous "wildcatter."
During the 1940s, Dave True worked for Texas Co. (now Texaco) in Cody, Wyo., where he and his wife, Jean, had three kids, Tamma, Hank and Diemer. The family moved to Casper in 1948, where Dave, a quiet but tough businessman, signed on with a one-rig drilling company. By 1954, he and Jean -- who appears in photographs as a statuesque, elegant Western-style woman -- had started their own drilling company. True Companies bloomed into an energy, banking and ranching conglomerate, with everything from a pipeline company and a trucking business to slaughterhouses, not to mention a big chunk of Wyoming land. According to LandReport.com, today the Trues hold more than 255,000 acres, putting them among the top 30 landowners in the nation. Diemer True went to work for the family company after he graduated from college, became a partner in True Companies a few years later, and in 1972, was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives. He has lived at the nexus of Wyoming politics and petroleum ever since.
These days, True can often be found in the headquarters of Diamond Oil, which he started with his sons a few years ago. The bland cinderblock building is in the industrial part of downtown Casper; the railroad tracks lie on one side, and the larger True Companies complex sits on another. It's steeped in '70s-era big-energy-boom dark browns, from the paneling to the carpet that swallows your feet; the interior could serve as a set for a Wyoming version of Dallas. Colorful maps of oil and gas leases in Louisiana break up the monochrome in True's second-story office. One of them has temporarily replaced a family photo, now leaning against the wall on the floor, that shows his 14 grandchildren. "They all think they're either cowboys or cowgirls," he says.
It's fair to say that True is a cowboy -- Jimmy Stewart, without the golly-gee-whiz naivete, might have played him in a Western. True's front teeth are a bit crooked, his nose may have been broken once. Today, he's wearing boots and a crisp cerulean-blue shirt that brings out the brightness in his friendly eyes. He wears a leather belt with a buckle that says "1991 National Finals Rodeo." As a hobby, he writes cowboy poetry, and, after a little prodding, recites one about "a branding, from the standpoint of a spur. It's a little different perspective, I can tell you that for sure." Nothing in his manner indicates the enormous amount of power he wields in this state -- and in the nation. When he urges the government to save his beloved mountains from industrialization, you can almost forget that, up until now, True was firmly on the other side, aggressively attacking regulations intended to keep public lands from being, well, industrialized.
True is often described as a king-maker or powerbroker. "It's not Ron Micheli who concerns me, it's the puppet master, Diemer True," Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal told the Casper Star-Tribune when asked about Micheli, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. True has pulled levers in the party as a national committeeman for the Wyoming GOP. The True family has collectively bankrolled the party for decades -- it was the top donor to Wyoming House and Senate candidates during the 1990s. On a national level, the family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates over the years. Diemer and his wife, Susie, have donated more than $200,000 to PACs and candidates for national office since 1989.
Typically, the donations went to pro-industry, anti-regulation candidates such as Wyoming's Cynthia Lummis and John Barrasso, as well as Heather Wilson, Steve Pearce and George W. Bush. True has also donated to Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, noted for his attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency and his assertion that climate change is a "false notion." True himself served as chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a position from which he regularly urged the federal government to increase access to oil and gas development on public lands.
In July 2002, at a congressional hearing on natural gas supplies headed by Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin, a longtime friend, True complained about having a hard time gaining access to coalbed methane in the Powder River Basin because "it appears that the environmental extremists now have been targeting that play … I think the American public does not understand the vital role that energy plays in their own personal prosperity ... As a result, with NIMBY and I have even heard now we have the acronym NOPE, Not On Planet Earth, what has happened is that … those people who believe we need additional resources developed have been losing the public relations battle." In the same testimony, True said that violation of "a sense of place" was no basis for denying natural gas development on public land.
True was part of the Bush/Cheney energy task force, in which industry leaders influenced the administration's policies. As recently as 2006, he served on the board of Frontiers of Freedom, a neo-conservative, hard-right organization that calls itself the "antithesis of the green movement," fights against the Endangered Species Act and has recently taken up the torch of global warming skepticism. True also served on the board of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based property-rights, anti-environmental regulation group. (Former Interior secretaries Gale Norton and James Watt were also members.) The True Foundation, administered by the family, donates to a variety of local charities, but many of its big gives go to right-wing groups such as the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Heritage Foundation and Capital Research Center.
"I'm glad to honor Diemer because he's a good friend," says then-Vice President Dick Cheney in a video produced to commemorate True's receiving the IPAA's Chief Roughneck award in 2008. "He has become one of the best-known and admired leaders in the energy business. He thinks clearly and speaks the truth plainly and he keeps his word." Later in the video, the cowpoke narrator jokes:
"Legend has it, he took his award, and went back up to the Hill to fight the Pelosi gang. See, he got this Pelosi into a room, read her his awful cowboy poetry. Wouldn't stop 'til she agreed to offshore drilling. There's one mean cowboy."
Bob Whitton has, somewhat surprisingly, found himself at odds with that "mean cowboy." Whitton's a bushy-mustached, retired Air Force fighter pilot-turned-rancher who raises bulls on a small-for-Wyoming spread between Chugwater and Wheatland, across I-25 from the Laramie Range. There is broad support for wind development down here, and Whitton chairs the Renewable Energy Alliance of Landowners, or REAL, a group with some 300 members who are fighting for the right to put turbines on their collective 800,000 acres of southeastern Wyoming. In that role, and as a private-property rights advocate in general, Whitton argued against True and his colleagues at the Converse County meeting.
Gesturing out the window of his modular home toward a short stretch of I-25 visible in the distance, Whitton talks about the wind. "One morning, I got up and seen three trucks on their side up there. I drove up there, and saw three more." The trucks had all been blown over by the wind. Then he points to the black bulls in his corrals. "People don't realize how much the wind costs me every day," he says. "The wind will kill a newborn calf faster than the cold." It blows the feed around. Corrals need windbreaks, and the tin roofs on outbuildings require extra nails so they don't tear off and become giant wind-blown scythes. "Wind costs me money all the time. Constantly."
But wind, it turns out, can also make a rancher lots of money. Wind developers typically pay a signing bonus, rent during the testing phase and a payment during construction. When the turbines start kicking out juice, the cash flows regularly, for years to come: A turbine can net a landowner $4,000 for every megawatt per year. That could amount to as much as $55,000 per year per section (640 acres). Wyoming ranches are often measured by thousands of acres, so some landowners stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
That might keep cash-strapped ranchers from selling out to real estate developers or billionaire hobby ranchers, who sometimes close their land to hunters, says Whitton. "Would you rather see a wind turbine? Or a subdivision?" he asks, echoing the pro-grazing slogan "I'd rather see a cow than a condo," from the 1980s and '90s.
REAL is a collection of about a dozen wind-energy associations -- groups of landowners who have united to negotiate with wind developers. By working as a group rather than as individuals, the associations can offer up large, contiguous chunks of land to wind developers, and then bargain collectively to get the best deal for everyone in the group. REAL provides a voice for folks like Richard Grant, who has agreed to let Wasatch Wind erect turbines on his family's 123-year-old spread in the Laramie Range and is now butting heads with the likes of True. It also works to remove other barriers to wind development in the state.
And the list of barriers is formidable. The economic crisis has made it tough for wind developers to get financing. The Wyoming state Legislature is considering upping its regulations on wind farms, and it will allow a sales tax exemption on wind farms to "sunset" in 2011. Combined with current property taxes, that could give Wyoming one of the least-favorable tax structures for wind farms among surrounding states. On top of that, state lawmakers are considering levying a generation tax on wind power. Every county in wind country, meanwhile, is grappling with its own level of rules, creating an uncertain regulatory environment for the industry.
But the biggest obstacle, by far, is lack of transmission capacity. "Most of the good sites (that have both strong wind and adequate transmission) have been leased and are off the market," says Brian Reilly of Whirlwind LLC, a Denver- and Casper-based wind firm with several Wyoming projects in the works. The big markets for wind are in states with renewable portfolio standards, such as California and Colorado. (Wyoming has no renewable mandate.) So in order to get new wind power to those who want it, new transmission lines must be built from Wyoming to the south and west. "If we don't get transmission solved, we don't get any of the benefits," says Whitton. "Nothing happens."
At least eight major transmission projects are in the planning stages for Wyoming, and all of them originate in or pass through wind country, but the path to getting them built remains rocky. Even a small line can cross all kinds of jurisdictions, causing permitting nightmares, and federal efforts to streamline the process haven't helped much yet. Power lines offer few permanent jobs, and landowners only get a one-time payment when a line crosses their land. "The problem with transmission is it has what I call the curse," says Whitton. "Nobody likes it. It's ugly, intrusive, and they don't pay worth a darn."
Rocky Mountain Power -- which is part of PacifiCorp -- has one of the biggest transmission efforts in the works, consisting of three lines, totaling 2,000 miles at a cost of $6.1 billion. The Gateway West line would string its way from near Glenrock south to I-80, then west to Idaho. The Gateway South project would start in Wyoming and end near Las Vegas. Gateway Central is in Idaho and Utah. Though power lines can't be restricted to any particular type of power, company officials say these lines are intended to add even more wind to Rocky Mountain Power's portfolio -- the company is, by far, the biggest wind producer in Wyoming. But the earliest any of the projects will be online is 2014. If they ever get built, that is.
"I have not met one person who has welcomed a transmission line on his property," Rocky Mountain Power President Richard Walje told a congressional subcommittee on natural resources this November, "and I doubt I would find anyone who would say, 'Oh, the transmission line is only for renewable energy; in that case I'll take two.' "
In October, Gov. Freudenthal told an energy conference that, in Wyoming, some folks who have made their money off gas and oil drilling and pipelines have "developed a sense of virtue about not destroying the environment," when faced with wind power. "They may be late conversions," he added, "but they are singing with great vigor in the front row of the choir." Most likely, he was talking about Diemer True. True joined the choir last year, when he discovered that Rocky Mountain Power planned to string its 230 kilovolt transmission line right along La Prele Creek, where he has two ranches. Then, Wasatch Wind asked True and his neighbors to lease their land for turbines. True, nearby landowner (and World Bank vice president) Kenneth G. Lay and some of their neighbors held a meeting in Douglas in May 2009 to come up with a plan of action. Around 200 people showed up.
Now, the Alliance has some 600 members and, with its slick Web site, petition drives and well-oiled PR machine, it has gained enough clout to make traditional green groups jealous. Just months after the Alliance formed, True took Rocky Mountain Power President Rich Walje up into the Laramie Range for a look around. As he basked in the quiet of the glades, pastures, aspens and ponderosas, Walje reportedly declared, "We can't build a power line here." Rocky Mountain Power withdrew that route from consideration, moving it farther east -- an unqualified victory for the group.
The Alliance fits into a bigger, nationwide pattern in which politics seem to get jumbled by wind power. Plenty of old-school energy companies have embraced wind: Whirlwind LLC in Wyoming is owned by Wold Oil Properties, run by Peter Wold, whose father, John, appears on the roughneck statue next to Dave True. Chevron has a controversial wind farm outside of Casper. BP donated $2 million to the University of Wyoming's wind energy center.
But quite often, the fossil fuel industry -- and folks who have made millions from it -- tilt at windmills. The NLRA bears an uncanny resemblance to the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The chairman of that group is Bill Koch, a coal and natural gas baron, who, according to Forbes.com, put $1.5 million into the group's effort to stop a wind-farm proposal right off Cape Cod on environmental grounds. Koch owns Oxbow Mining, which operates one of Colorado's biggest underground coal mines; and Gunnison Energy, which is drilling for natural gas on the edge of Colorado's Piceance Basin. In Colorado, a billionaire ranch owner and Oxy USA, a giant natural gas and petroleum company, oppose a power line that would carry solar-generated power out of the San Luis Valley. Fossil-fuel-funded think tanks like the Institute for Energy Research or Pacific Research Institute regularly cast doubts on the promise of renewable energy and green jobs.
In its talk and actions, however, the Alliance and its members appear sincere; not only have they extended their reach beyond their backyards, but they're beginning -- somewhat uncomfortably -- to embrace a green attitude. The mountains are "everyone's escape from city life," says Sharon Rodeman, an active member of the Alliance whose family has long ranched the Laramie Range. "It's a good place to rebalance and come back to nature with your kids and teach them to respect wildlife and enjoy the scenery and freeze in a tent." Lisa Mangus, another Alliance member who worries about the "spiderweb of power lines" wind farms will bring, concedes: "I guess we are environmentalists, even if we've never thought about that before. Just this way of life, living in Wyoming."
In October, the Alliance created the Northern Laramie Range Foundation to raise money to lease parcels of state land in the Laramie Range for recreational purposes. That will not only preclude wind development on those parcels, but it will also keep out other sorts of development -- including oil and gas drilling.
True refuses to call himself an environmentalist: "I'd couch us as preservationists or conservationists." Still, he says, "We all love the land out there. We just love it."
Barbara Parsons sits on the couch in her house in Rawlins, the biggest town in aptly named Carbon County, and rattles off a list of the foes she's fought during three decades of activism with the Wyoming Outdoor Council: The Union 76 uranium mining proposal; the Atlantic Rim coalbed methane boom; the Sinclair refinery, a sprawling collection of tanks, pipes and flaring stacks that kicks out some 75,000 barrels of petroleum products every day (and which spilled 2.73 million gallons of gasoline-grade fluid into the ground this May, putting the company town of Sinclair in danger of becoming flambeed.)
"I guess I'm pretty much of a hell-raiser," says the 70-year-old Wyoming native, who, with her wavy blonde hair and striking blue eyes, looks more like a country-club social coordinator than the avid hunter and green rabble-rouser that she is. Now, she's unleashed her hell-raising on wind power, and in so doing, oddly aligned herself with the state's natural gas industry.
Directly south of Rawlins, on a windswept mesa, Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz's company wants to build a 1,000-turbine wind farm on a patchwork of private and public lands. It will cover some 95,800 acres and generate 2,000 megawatts of power or more, equal to some of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the West. Thousands of truck trips will be made to bring in the turbines, and new substations will spring up in the sage, along with transmission towers and hundreds of miles of roads. Perhaps most worrisome, big sections of the farm overlap core sage grouse habitat. "Our organization has been touting renewables forever," says Parsons. "But we didn't think about what it would entail." (Sidebar: The messy mix of energy and sage grouse).
The sage grouse was once plentiful across the sagebrush-covered West. As the sage was cleared for grazing, and later invaded by energy development and ranchettes, the bird's numbers plummeted. For the last five years, the prospect of the grouse being listed under the Endangered Species Act has loomed, something that could hit mining, ranching and energy here as hard as the spotted owl's listing hit timber in the Northwest. In 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the bird. Environmental groups sued, forcing the agency to reconsider; it has until February 2010 to make its decision. Meanwhile, Wyoming has acted aggressively to put its own sage grouse conservation plan in place in hopes of averting a listing.
The state's strategy is simple: Find and map the parts of the state that are most critical to sage grouse, and protect these core areas, mostly through voluntary measures. The core-area maps, drawn up by a group of agency officials and conservation and industry representatives, were finished last year (Sidebar: The battle for the core of Wyoming). The oil and gas companies have agreed to curtail activities in core areas -- drilling is limited to one pad per section -- or stay out of them altogether. In return, the state will streamline permitting and offer other incentives for drilling in non-core areas. "It's not a perfect concept," says Sophie Osborn, a biologist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which, along with Wyoming Audubon and Wyoming Wildlife Federation, has endorsed the strategy, "but it will go a long way toward protecting the sage grouse." While Osborn concedes that an all-out federal listing might be better for the bird, the core-area concept will create a lot less animosity toward the grouse, the feds and environmentalists, making it easier for her group to work in the state.
That raises the question of what was given up for the sake of getting along, and how wind fits -- or more likely doesn't fit -- into this strategy. The core areas are all neatly drawn to exclude gas fields, even ones that were sage grouse havens less than a decade ago. That's in part because the sage grouse is already gone, or too near gone, to be saved in areas of full-field development, says Brian Rutledge of Audubon Wyoming, an adamant defender of the core-area process and strategy. But the core areas also give the drillers plenty of elbow-room for business as usual. The team "did a very good job of carving the core areas out away from the oil and gas wells that are in the state," said Aaron Clark, a Wyoming Fish and Game Commissioner and advisor to the governor, at the August wind symposium. "A large part of our sage grouse policy is designed around the need to protect jobs." Indeed, only 7 percent of producing oil and gas wells in the state are located in core areas.
Such a strategy, says Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, could be the death of the sage grouse. In the Powder River Basin, core-area boundaries appear to have missed altogether big chunks of grouse habitat; of more than 4,600 birds counted in the area, only 1,300 were counted in the core areas. And even if those birds all huddle safely within the core areas, they could be cut off from one another by the drilling sacrifice zones in between, harming genetic diversity.
The strategy also disproportionately impacts wind power. Because it wasn't much of a force -- or a threat -- when the core areas were drawn up, the wind industry was not involved. As a result, 23 percent of Wyoming's winds that are class 4 or higher -- and about half or more of developable class 6 and 7 winds -- are in core areas. And in July, the state put those winds off-limits by essentially banning big wind farms in core areas. Many in the wind industry see it as devastating. The Interwest Energy Alliance -- a trade group -- said the ban could have "a deleterious effect on renewable energy development" across the West, and that it could kill the development of 10,000 megawatts of wind in Wyoming.
That has put the old-school energy in Wyoming at odds with the new. If wind development is allowed in core areas, it could undermine the integrity of the core-area strategy. That, in turn, could increase the likelihood of the feds listing sage grouse as endangered. And that would lead to stringent regulations for all the bird's habitat -- including most of the current oil and gas fields and untapped reserves.
On this issue, Gov. Freudenthal has tilted towards the hand that feeds the budget. In a letter to the state Senate back in May, he wrote, "Seemingly every acre … is up for grabs in the interest of 'green, carbon-neutral technologies,' no matter how 'brown' the effects are on the land. It's like taking a short cut to work through a playground full of school children and claiming 'green' as a defense because you were driving a Toyota Prius." He said that traditional industries have voluntarily avoided prime sage grouse habitat, and that they have offset their impacts by bringing gobs of cash to the state. "I cannot speak with the same certainty with regard to wind development," he wrote. The major conservation groups and game and fish officials have echoed the sentiment.
"Wind is just being singled out in a lot of ways," replies Shannon Anderson. "The governor always says that wind should play by the same rules that oil and gas plays by. But oil and gas wrote the rules."
From its base to the tip of its rotor, the GE 1.5 megawatt wind turbine is 380 feet tall. Each rotor blade is 122 feet long. It took 325 people five months to erect the 158 turbines on this 13,500-acre wind farm.
Laine Anderson, a mild-mannered guy with a mop of blond hair, rattles off the stats, and throws in some more: Weight of each turbine (450,000 pounds); number of semi-trucks to haul one turbine (six to eight). Anderson is the operations manager for the PacifiCorp Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind farm. A big metal building houses his office. Inside, a dry erase chalkboard has a list of to-do tasks scrawled on it, including, "Mice in turbines, exterminator." Just down the hall, two desktop computers monitor the entire farm, providing reams of real-time information on each wind machine.
Anderson was born in Encampment, in the southern part of the state, graduated from the University of Wyoming and became a petroleum engineer. Later, wanting a change, he turned to wind and landed here. Anderson and his colleagues -- about a dozen full-time contractors -- tend to the farm. The turbines need checkups every six months or so, as well as occasional tinkering in between. "Basically," Anderson says, "it's a never-ending job. They're worse than cars sometimes."
He takes me on a tour in a big white truck, making me wear a hardhat because turbine blades can throw chunks of ice. From the top of a hill, as a bunch of antelope amble nearby, Anderson points southward through the forest of windmills to a huge plume of steam that marks the Dave Johnston power plant. Then he motions to the earth all around where we stand. The wind farm sits on the reclaimed remnants of an old, giant coal mine; all this land was once torn up, gouged by draglines, its carboniferous bounty burned in the plant down below. "We wanted to take a coal mine," says Anderson. "And make it useful."
Anderson never mentions climate change. In fact, in all my conversations with Wyomingites about wind, the term rarely comes up. That shouldn't be surprising. The idea of increasingly extreme weather events doesn't mean much when you already live in a place where snowdrifts can bury your cows, and a wind gust can flip a dozen tractor-trailers on a single stretch of highway. Rising sea levels are hard to imagine in the inland heart of energy country, where mysterious fracking fluids come out of the faucet and power lines are strung like spaghetti across the plains. And where allowing a bunch of windmills onto your land could keep you from having to sell out and move to the suburbs.
In Wyoming, there are two struggles. One is between the old school of energy and the new; the other pits the local view of energy against the global view. In the end, the failure to reconcile these dichotomies may be far more harmful to Wyoming's economy than any endangered species listing. More and more, the market is going to demand clean energy. Right now, however, Wyoming is not prepared to supply it.
To many, the Glenrock wind farm is a symbol of a brighter future, in which Wyoming's wind helps it atone for the sins of fossil fuel. Jonathan Naughton, the director of the University of Wyoming's Wind Energy Center, envisions a world in which the state's energy struggles give way to synergy. What if, he asks, wind provided the massive amounts of power that the fossil fuel industry now consumes? New turbines would sprout from old gas fields, their compressor stations and other facilities powered by wind, and wind-powered electricity could gasify coal underground -- a cleaner method of using coal. Says Naughton, "There are some really interesting, unexplored, symbiotic things between our energy sources."
But in the meantime, Wyoming still faces wind resistance. The Converse County meeting ended with the planning commission voting to recommend a moratorium for the whole county. The county commissioners shot the moratorium down, but the NLRA still plans to pursue it. And the struggle goes on.
After saying goodbye to Anderson, I hit the road again, stopping at a place where it nuzzles up against the wind-farm's boundary. I slither through the fence and walk up to a turbine, until I'm directly beneath its blades. The only sound is a low-pitched sort of watery sigh, kind of like a slowed-down version of an unborn baby's heartbeat on an ultrasound. No gears grind or scream on this solitary giant, nothing spews out of it, no drill bits penetrate, and no strange fluids are shot into or sucked out of the earth. The wind blows, the arms turn, and electrons flow through cables, down the tower, under the ground, and into the power lines where they'll join up with the coal-generated electrons 13 miles away. They flow into the bloodstream of the omnipotent, tentacled organism called the grid. Somewhere, someone flips a switch. And there is light.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
For more information on Wyoming Wind and the politics surrounding it, see the related sidebars: The battle for the core of Wyoming and The messy mix of energy and sage grouse. Click on the live links in the text above (for sources, documents, links to specific organizations, etc.) Also, keep an eye on the excellent energy coverage by Dustin Bleizeffer and his colleagues at the Casper Star-Tribune. The Wyoming Wind Symposium in August gave a very comprehensive, multiple-viewpoint look at the issues surrounding wind, from the economics of a wind farm, to concepts such as "wind rights," which would split wind development rights from the land (leading to a split-estate possibility). Powerpoint materials and videos (click on "Other Events" then "Wyoming Wind Symposium") from the presentation are available.
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