The Obama administration moved ahead on two wind power fronts on Monday, publishing the final environmental impact statement for a Wyoming project that could become the nation’s largest wind farm, and advancing plans to open up areas of the Outer Continental Shelf off Rhode Island and Massachusetts for offshore wind development.
“When it comes to wind energy, we’re making significant progress both onshore and offshore to diversify our nation’s domestic energy portfolio and stand up a clean energy economy,” Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. “Today, as we take the next steps toward realizing what could be the largest wind energy project in the world and holding a competitive offshore wind lease sale, we are really at the forefront of a renewable energy revolution.”
The Anschutz Corporation, through an LLC called Power Company of Wyoming (PCW), has been working since 2006 on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, which could see up to 1,000 turbines putting out 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of electricity in south-central Wyoming.
The project – really two huge turbine clusters, about nine miles apart in Carbon County – requires several layers of impact review because half of it would go on federal lands. Since 2009, the administration has approved 31 utility-scale wind, solar, and geothermal projects on federal lands that, if eventually built, could provide around 7.2 gigawatts of power – enough to power nearly 2.5 million homes.
The Wyoming wind project alone could power 1 million homes, the Department of the Interior said.
The project still needs approval from the Bureau of Land Management for a right of way, and the public has until July 30 to submit comments on possible mitigation measures, impacts on cultural resources and other matters discussed in the environmental impact statement.
Don’t be surprised if there is plenty of criticism.
Although PCW says it “significantly modified” its plan in 2010 to repond to concerns, in comments last fall on draft documents the Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) called Chokecherry and Sierra Madre a “massive, poorly sited project” that would put sage grouse and other wildlife at risk and was “likely to trigger a public backlash against future wind development.”
The group actually supports wind power in Wyoming, writing in a 2008 report [PDF] that wind “offers a clean, renewable source of electricity that could help to replace fossil fuels, which contribute air pollution and exacerbate the problem of global climate change.” BCA argues that there are areas in the eastern part of the state that would be better suited and perfectly acceptable for wind power development.
But PCW president and CEO Bill Miller said in a statement that the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre plan preferred by the feds “reflects a balanced approach that will provide the best opportunity to develop an environmentally responsible, economically viable wind project and to provide the country with millions of megawatt-hours of cost-effective clean energy.”
One big question still unanswered is where the wind power from Chokeberry and Sierra Madre, should it be built, will go. The expectation is that if the project is fully approved, California power utilities, spurred by the state’s renewable portfolio standard, will want the power it could produce. Getting power purchase agreements in place will in turn will open the door for construction of the transmission lines that PCW will need to get the power out of Wyoming.
On the offshore front, publication of the environmental assessment for commercial wind leases and site assessment activities on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts “puts Interior in position to offer this area as one of the nation’s first offshore competitive lease sales before the end of the year,” the Department of the Interior said.
The department said it had identifed a “wind energy area” that comprises around 165,000 acres. The federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management “will host public information sessions on July 16 and 17 to further engage stakeholders and consider public comments on the environmental assessment in determining whether to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact, or conduct additional analysis under NEPA in order to hold a lease sale for commercial offshore wind development,” the department said.
The move in the Northeast, launched last August, is part of the administration’s “Smart from the Start” process for speeding development of offshore wind resources. Currently, there’s nary a watt of power being generated from wind off U.S. coastlines, but the Obama administration has big plans to change that. The administration envisions a scenario that includes deployment of 10 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity by 2020 and 54 gigawatts by 2030.