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With Reversed Decision on Lease, Controversial Wind Project Moves Forward

Leigh Paterson

In a 4-1 vote, the State Board of Land Commissioners approved the Rail Tie wind project in Albany County on Thursday, January 21. This reverses the Commission's previous decision in November to not extend the lease.

Depending on the turbine model selected, renewable energy developer ConnectGen will place between 84 and 149 wind turbines that sit between 500 to 675 feet tall near the community of Tie Siding in Albany County. The current plan states that 120 turbines that are 590 feet tall will be installed. They will be placed on both private land and school trust land that extends over 26,000 acres.

The project has been a source of controversy in Laramie, with land-owner opponents even paying for anti-wind billboards. Opponents spoke to the board citing a loss of viewsheds and lower land values as they asked for a rejection of the plan. Others brought up concerns about a drop in Laramie's attractiveness to current and future businesses and residents, with some even threatening to move if the project went forward.

"It will greatly reduce the prosperity of the city of Laramie, that is not compensated by the rent and tax revenue paid by the project. The reduction will be seen in tourism, other types of businesses not moving to Albany County, and even existing businesses will hurt, like outdoor outfitters. And the University of Wyoming will not be able to recruit top researchers because of the lack of appropriate housing. So approval of this lease would be extremely short-sighted and cost Wyoming much more than any of us want to pay," said Albany County resident Miria White.

Others who argued for the approval of the project cited the revenue that the project would produce. They called upon the board's duty to support the state's school districts. Being on School Trust Land, the Rail Tie project will generate $20 million for the districts over the project's 35-year lifespan. ConnectGen indicated that the project would continue solely on private land if their lease wasn't approved.

"This means that the state land sections would end up as underused islands surrounded by the Rail Tie wind project," project manager Amanda MacDonald told the board. "The Rail Tie opposition's concerns about viewshed and tourism and other impacts would not be avoided. The only difference is that the state would miss out on $20 million in lease payments over the life of the project."

Other supporters, including a University of Wyoming freshman, advised the board to embrace the changing administration and turn to renewable energy.

State Superintendent Jillian Balow initially voted not to support the motion to grant the lease in November but voted in favor of the motion this time.

"We're seeking long-term growth and optimum and sustainable revenue," Balow said. "And the greatest benefit that we have before us for this land at this time is, in fact, executing this lease."

State Treasurer Curt Meier cast the lone vote against the motion, citing concerns that the returns to the state were insufficient. He said the board should "keep our powder dry" and look for a more lucrative opportunity in the future.

According to ConnectGen's project description, the Rail Tie wind project could be operational by the end of 2022.

Correction 1/28/21: A previous version of this story stated that ConnectGen would place 151 turbines that are 675 feet tall in the Rail Tie project. Actually, the current plan states that 120 turbines that are 590 feet tall will be installed. The possible number of turbines installed ranges depending on what size the turbines are (which can be between 500-675 feet).

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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