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Questions Emerge As Wind Projects Roll Out Across SE Wyoming

Cooper McKim
Missy Karamschuster and her husband chose to live outside of Laramie in order to have more space and a beautiful view.

South of Laramie, there's a road that goes straight into the plains. Over the hill, it's just open country, boulders and eventually, a tan house with a large porch facing the Rockies.
"I wake up every morning, go get a cup of coffee and just look at the mountains," said Missy Karamschuster, who's chosen to live outside of Laramie with her husband to enjoy the open view.

She's worried, though, that a new development called the Rail Tie Wind Project could impede that view.

We're driving through about half of the development's proposed corridor, from her house to the recreational site Vedauwoo about 15 minutes away. The corridor goes 15 minutes in the other direction as well. The turbines could be as high as 675 feet or as low as 485, according to the developer ConnectGen.

"The windmills are supposed to go all to the backside of this property, all the way back here, and then they are supposed to sit on that hill," Karamschuster said. "But everybody around this area will be able to see 'em."

She points out her neighbors' properties, waves hello to a few passing cars, and said she'd prefer it to stay like this.

"Look at this beautiful view that we have out here. Yeah, I just can't imagine. It would look like an industrial park to me," said Karamschuster.

Credit Western Area Power Administration
Scoping project area map (close up).

She has concerns about all of the impacts: visual, the noise, blinking lights and health concerns. She's even thought about moving.

"I think about it sometimes. I would want to move or I would want to sell it before they get building because our property value is going to decrease immensely," said Karamschuster.

The Rail Tie project has just begun its regulatory process, and its developer ConnectGen still has little idea what kind of impacts it's going to have, say with property values. It has also not determined exactly where turbines will go, how tall they'll be, or how many will be used.

Credit Cooper McKim
Western Area Power Administration and ConnectGen just began their presentation at Laramie's scoping meeting this week.

Part of the regulatory process, of course, is public comment. During a recent meeting in Laramie, the room was packed. I met one landowner named Juan Reyes. He supports the wind farm, saying turbines don't really bother him. Plus, he's leasing his land to the company.

"It would benefit us greatly. You know, production agriculture is not really a rich boy's game. So, we've struggled forever, but hopefully this would give us a boost," said Reyes, who owns land in the area, though lives in Wheatland.

Few others at the meeting were happy about it, too. Some raised concerns about the proximity to the national historic landmark Ames Monument.

Anna Lee Ames Froelich, the three-times great-grand daughter of Oakes Ames, one of the Union Pacific Railroad financiers who the monument was named for. She said she's very worried about the plan.

"This monument is 60 feet high, it has always stood out. You put in 150 wind towers that are 600 feet high, it's going to make the Ames Monument disappear," she said.

Another at the meeting worried about what the wind farms will do to his property value, too. Ryan Asay, dawning a black cowboy hat, said he worries about the ranch he lives on. It surrounds the project area.

"there's lots of other places they could put it. I know there's tons of houses down [there]," he said. "It's going to affect a lot of people."

Credit Cooper McKim
The Ames Monument, named for Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames, Jr, both Union Pacific railroad financiers, credited with completing the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Asay's biggest question, though, was simple.

"But why… right… here? Which I'm sure is the question everybody wants to know."

When you drive through Wyoming, it does look like there's infinite available space to put a wind project. But Amanda MacDonald, the Rail Tie project manager for ConnectGen, said it's not that simple.

"When you start layering in all of the constraints: environmental, transmission, compatible land-use... the areas that are compatible with wind development, it starts to shrink down a lot," she said.

If Rail Tie was placed in a remote area, MacDonald said her company would have to build the infrastructure to transport electricity, which isn't easy or cheap.

ConnectGen is actually developing projects nationwide, but MacDonald said the Mountain West was of particular interest.

"Since there are utilities here like Pacificorp, for example, adding massive amounts of wind energy. The state of Colorado has pretty aggressive renewable energy goals. So, it seemed like an area, where if we could get a wind energy project developed, there would be a good buyer for the for the project," she said.

Credit Info from the WY Department of Environmental Quality; put together by Cooper McKim
Wind projects in the works since 2013.

These are all relatively new challenges for southeast Wyoming, which has seen a major influx of new wind projects over the past seven years. In fact, seven of the past nine new wind developments in the state have been in the region. Once online, those projects will more than triple Wyoming's current wind power generation.

University of Wyoming Professor Jonathan Naughton is director of the Wind Energy Research Center. He says there are two big reasons southeast Wyoming is a seeing this bump in new wind development.

Naughton said the first reason is the rush to develop wind energy nationwide right now. The federal tax credit is expiring in 2021, which Rail Tie will take advantage of it. New transmission lines will come online soon. Plus, wind power has just gotten a lot cheaper.

"Wind and solar have come down so much in price that utilities are choosing to go out and purchase them because they are economically the best choice for ratepayers," Naughton said.

The second reason: southeast Wyoming happens to be very close to certain renewable energy-demanding states like Colorado. It's also just a part of the Western grid as more states look to renewables.

Naughton said he's not surprised by the project's pusbhack though, as places like Albany County aren't as used to big infrastructure projects.

Credit Western Area Power Administration
The Rail Tie Wind Project is just entering the NEPA or National Environmental Policy Act process where it will analyze its impacts and engage with the public.

"We have a limited experience with this and much of that was done a long time ago," he said. "So, first reaction is, 'Yeah, that this is not something we want to do.'"

But Naughton compares it to the federal highway system. He says in the 1950s, most people were worried what fast-paced roads would do to a town or a community.

"But we look two generations, three generations later, and I don't think you'll find too many people that think the federal highways system is a bad thing," he said.

Plus, Naughton said the coming projects will provide a much-needed economic boost, both for the county and the state. Rail Tie promises to bring nearly $180 million in tax benefit over its 35-year life span.

He added the surge of new southeastern wind projects is expected to continue for the next several years.

The Rail Tie project is scheduled to be built in 2021 and operational by 2022. There were will be multiple opportunities for public comment before its final regulatory approval.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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