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Open Spaces

"It's Hard To Reach A Compromise": How Communities Are Handling Conflicts Over Wind Development

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Miria White
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The White family cabin. It was built by Miria's dad who has since passed away.

The White family cabin sits at the base of Boulder Ridge with a stunning view of the Laramie Valley. Today, Michelle White is canning beans, the pots rattling on the stove. But Michelle and her daughter, Miria gesture out their giant picture window at the prairie.

"Okay, so the turbines are going to completely blanket this entire valley all the way up to Ames monument," Michelle says.

"One mile in front of Ames Monument," Miria clarifies.

"And all the way to the left in front of Vedauwoo," Michelle says.

The Whites moved here twelve years agoto get away from the rat race in California and enjoy watching wildlife just outside this window. But a new wind project is proposed in the area and they're worried about how birds and animals would be affected by it. They list all the wildlife they see here.

"Porcupines, my dog got into the porcupine," Michelle says.

"Occasionally a badger," says Miria.

"Coyotes, I'm guessing?" I ask.

"Oh yeah, maybe even a wolf," says Michelle. "I think when we first moved out here, I found wolf prints and I called Fish and Game and told them."

Michelle says, lots of hawks and eagles that could be injured by turbine blades.

A proposed map of the Rail Tie project shows three turbines going in less than three quarters of a mile from their cabin. Beyond that, there could be as many as 149, each one about fifty stories tall. Miria is one of the organizers of WY Wind Here, a growing group of landowners arguing to stop the project with increasingly urgent strategies, including testifying at legislature, organizing on social media and even putting up billboards. The Texas company ConnectGen has been looking to develop Rail Tie now for two years. But public opposition has made that more complicated.

That includes from the Whites, who have a lot of reasons they don't want the project nearby. For one, they're worried about people's health.

"The sound and just the whole perpetual spinning of the blades," says Michelle. "And that flickering that happens. And you know, I've just scanned YouTube videos for like the last two years about the horrors of people living next to these.

The project is now nearing confirmation. Public comment ends June 1. If it passes, the project could be operational by the end of 2022.

Miria says when she tries to tell local officials about her concerns, she doesn't feel heard.

"It really makes me sad, because there's no dialogue," she says. "There's no way to talk to them. And say, like when I pleaded with the county commissioners, with the planning and zoning committee, and I asked them, 'Please, all I want is one mile setbacks. Is that really a lot to ask? One regulation?"

What the dialogue really is about here, I think is whether Wyoming wants to be part of that or if we're going to not be part of that and those are both options. Neither one is right or wrong. The thing is to have a true and open dialogue about it and then make good decisions about, Okay, we're going to do this or not. And then I would ask the question is if we're not going to do it, what are we going to do to answer some of these economic challenges in the state?

"In terms of the setbacks they've been proposing over the past year, they would eliminate essentially the entire wind project," says Amanda MacDonald, a spokesperson for ConnectGen, the Rail Tie Project's developer out of Texas. "So that makes it hard to reach any sort of compromise."

Hear that stark contrast in views? Online, those disagreements have gotten even uglier, with lots of misinformation. MacDonald says a big one is that wind power isn't really green, that it takes more power to construct than it produces.

"When in fact, you know, that carbon footprint is offset in the first six to eight months of operations."

It's inaccuracies like this that MacDonald says makes these projects more controversial.

"Social media has made a lot of things different. It's interesting, someone can post something on social media, that's completely not true, and it spreads like wildfire through social media before anyone has a chance to correct it. So that's definitely a challenge."

A better place for people to communicate is through the public comment period that's open now, says one of the decision makers, Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar. He says he's currently preparing for the vote on the project, scheduled to happen in a couple weeks. He agrees that dialogue has been hard to keep respectful in regard to the Rail Tie project.

"I think in the end, there's no doubt there'll be a lot of people disappointed, no matter which way you come down on the issue. But we all have to live next to each other," Gosar says.

Gosar is thinking hard about what the project could mean for the county's financial struggles. Albany County is the poorest in the state and deep budget cuts from the pandemic could make it hard to pay for services like police and schools.

"It's a big deal," says Gosar. "It means a lot to the budget of Albany County. We have never been really long in finances, because we did not have the resources that are extractable. But here's an opportunity to maybe change that so that it's not just the people who live near this facility, everybody in the county is going to be impacted one way or the other."

But Gosar says he hasn't made up his mind yet.

"Well, you know, as far as I see it, I have at least 30 days, and I made no determination at this point. I'm gonna take all 30 days to be as informed as I can be to make the best decision I can."

But this issue doesn't stop at the local level. Jonathan Naughton is the director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Wyoming. He says this project is bigger than any one community. He says wind could be a way to diversify the state's tax base and companies like this one don't need Wyoming as much as Wyomingites like to think. Even states with less wind potential can now build them effectively.

"What the dialogue really is about here, I think is whether Wyoming wants to be part of that or if we're going to not be part of that and those are both options. Neither one is right or wrong," says Naughton. "The thing is to have a true and open dialogue about it and then make good decisions about, Okay, we're going to do this or not. And then I would ask the question is if we're not going to do it, what are we going to do to answer some of these economic challenges in the state?"

The Albany County planning and zoning commission has now approved the application; next it goes to the county commissioners to decide. The Rail Tie public comment period is open through June 1. If commissioners approve it, development could begin as soon as early next year.

As part of our series "I Respectfully Disagree," Melodie Edwards will sit down for a bread breaking with representatives for and against the Rail Tie project in Laramie. You can hear that conversation on Open Spaces June 4.

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