Wind Resistance

Will the petrocracy -- and greens -- keep Wyoming from realizing its windy potential?

  • Pronghorn and wind turbines near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. JONATHAN THOMPSONPronghorn and wind turbines near Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Wind farm north of Elk Mountain, in Carbon County, Wyoming.

    Mark Goke
  • Oil magnate and anti-wind activist Diemer True.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Kenneth G. Lay’s ranch on White Creek. Wasatch Wind has leased land for a wind farm on the ridge from Richard Grant and the state of Wyoming.

    Kenneth G. Lay
  • Bob Whitton says wind turbines could help Wyoming ranchers like him stay in business.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Wyoming wind humor at the old National Weather Service forecast building at the Cheyenne airport.

    Tom Dietrich

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.

Energy's dark side
Dec 17, 2009 03:59 PM
Great story on a difficult subject. At some point, we're going to have to acknowledge that every type of energy we produce has a dark side. The fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro have the obvious, long established ones. But wind and solar, particularly out here in the west where its always been cheaper to start on virgin land, threaten habitat, wilderness, and open space. Tidal presents problems for fish migration & breeding, wave can be a hassle for navigation and recreation. Ethanol takes more energy & resources to produce than it can ever give back.

And with all of them, as this article very rightly points out, there's a whole other devil in the delivery. Its unrealistic to think that as archaic as our grid system might be, that there is the political will and financial capital to unplug us en masse (even in stages) anytime soon.

What it comes down to is that there is a dark side to this convenient, comfortable life that we lead, and we're still resisting coming to terms with it and what we're willing to do about it.

Drive less, okay, but give up the car altogether? Still feel good about our reusable shopping bags even when they're filled to the brim with energy-intensive single use packaging from Trader Joe's?

By U.S. standards, I'm not a big energy user. No tv or microwave. The rest of it is unplugged unless I'm using it. My thermostat is programmed and spends the majority of the winter months set below 60. I commute by bike and bus. But I still have on demand access to the internet, light and heat when I want it, and all of those energy intensive luxuries we take for granted, tissue paper, disposable pens, take out containers, the option to get in my car and run eight errands in three hours that would otherwise take up my whole weekend in unmotorized logistics.

If we're serious about climate change, we have to be serious about less energy consumption, regardless of how we make it. And to be serious about using less energy, we'll have to start making some uncomfortable choices about what we're willing to change.

Or we can put it off and have the choices made for us.
Energy Use Doesn't Have To Have A Dark Side
Brian J. Walsh
Brian J. Walsh
Dec 31, 2009 07:51 AM
Although everything we do as humans with regard to energy can be spun to have a dark side, the reality is that we need energy, we use energy and we are unlikely to stop either needing it or using it. That's the reason for becoming as energy independent as possible as families and homeowners. Not only can we often produce our own energy at home with solar and small wind, the actual footprint of devices to produce that energy are generally quite small compared to the commercial leasing of private and public lands for the same process - we don't have to bend to the wills of those big players who want to monopolize energy production and distribution.

Through the use of common-sense DIY practices to both build and produce our own energy at home, we escape the clutches of a new generation of robber barons who would enslave us through energy monopolies. We can put a stop to that by producing our own energy at home, we can save public lands from the scars of massive energy projects and we can preserve the best possible lifestyle for those who come after us by just using common sense, which means producing our own energy at home by building and making our own equipment - it's a lot easier, simpler and cheaper than you think to produce a heck of a lot of electricity (and also save it by using solar water heating) at home.

Brian J. Walsh
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Dec 25, 2009 03:51 PM

     Things move so quickly in Converse County, this article is already a little out of date. A new Duke Energy wind farm known as Campbell Hill has come on-line. Construction is about to begin on another Duke wind farm called Top of The World (only a few miles from Glenrock). The moratorium mentioned in the story was shot down, unanimously, by Converse County's board of commissioners, and a new moratorium proposed by the Alliance will soon be coming before the commission. RMP has also proposed new routes for its Gateway West line. Checkout or for frequent updates and more details on all of these issues, the NLRA, REAL, Gateway West and wind in Converse County.