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

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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.' "

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