BLM moves Ariz.'s largest wind-power project closer to approval

Posted: May 21, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM
Wind energy Arizona

The Bureau of Land Management announced today that it has completed a years-long environmental review of what would become the largest wind power project in Arizona, covering nearly 40,000 acres of public land.

Houston-based BP Wind Energy North America Inc.'s proposed 500-megawatt Mohave County Wind Farm Project in northwest Arizona would string together as many as 283 wind turbines across 35,000 acres of BLM land and 2,700 acres of Bureau of Reclamation land. The wind farm would have the capacity to produce enough electricity to power as many as 175,000 homes, according to an advance notice published in today's Federal Register.

BLM plans to publish a final environmental impact statement for the project tomorrow in the Federal Register, capping off a federal review period that began in late 2009.

The final EIS will be open for public review through June 15. BLM plans to issue a formal record of decision authorizing the project by midsummer, said Eddie Arreola, the supervisor of BLM Arizona's renewable energy coordination office.

"You can't believe the excitement within the business. It's a long process, but it's a good process to go through, and we're delighted to get to tomorrow's publication," said Amanda Abbott, director of government and public affairs for BP Wind Energy in Houston.

Abbott said the company does not yet have a construction start-up date for the $1 billion project because it has not yet secured a power purchase agreement to sell the electricity produced at the wind farm. BP plans to market the wind farm's electricity to utilities in Arizona, Nevada and California, she said.

"Once we get the record of decision in hand, we'll go into high gear to secure an off-taker and land a power purchase agreement," she said.

But the project further underscores the Obama administration's efforts to develop renewable energy resources on federal lands.

The Mohave County Wind Farm was one of six wind power projects BLM identified as priorities to complete the permitting process by year's end. If all six projects were built, they would cover more than 70,000 acres of BLM land and have the capacity to produce more than 1,100 MW of electricity, or enough to power more than 380,000 homes (Greenwire, Feb. 6).

The Obama administration since 2009 has approved 37 solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering roughly 240,000 acres of federal land with a total capacity to power nearly 4 million homes.

"This is the largest wind energy project in Arizona, and BLM is elated to have this project milestone completed to meet the country's energy future and to benefit the public," BLM Arizona State Director Ray Suazo said in a statement.

Environmental, noise impacts

But the project BLM is set to approve is a modified version of the one BP originally proposed four years ago and different from the project layout evaluated in the draft EIS last year.

The company and BLM shaved off roughly 10,000 acres from the original layout in an effort to address environmental concerns, as well as noise and visual impacts to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, just north of the proposed project site, and nearby private property owners.

BLM's "preferred alternative" in the final EIS removes turbines from the northwest corner of the project site after golden eagle nests were identified in the area, according to the federal notice. Removing the turbines also addressed noise and visual concerns at Lake Mead National Recreation Area; the National Park Service had asked BLM not to allow BP to place new turbines in the northwest corner.

In total, the preferred alternative forbids placing turbines within a 1.25-mile buffer area of the eagle nests on the northwest corner of the project site. It also calls for a minimum quarter-mile setback from nearby private lands.

"There were several years of studies for golden eagles, and they revealed some golden eagle habitat in the area, and that's the main reason why you have that large area that's not being developed," Arreola said.

Abbott said BP is confident the latest project layout is as environmentally responsible as possible.

"That's part of our commitment as a wind company, to do everything we possibly can," Abbott said.

Untapped wind potential

BP Wind Energy chose the nearly 40,000-acre tract for the project after extensive testing revealed it has high wind values.

Wind energy advocates say there are many other such spots in Arizona, in the northwest side of the state but also in north-central Arizona.

But Arizona is known as a solar mecca, not a hot spot for wind development. Indeed, Arizona's Sonoran Desert is one of the most attractive solar power development sites in the nation.

Very little corresponding wind power development has occurred in the Grand Canyon State.

Wind resource data compiled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ranked Arizona No. 27 for potential installed wind power capacity.

Still, the state has about 238 MW of installed commercial-scale wind power, according to statistics compiled by the American Wind Energy Association, which estimates there are projects with the capacity to produce an additional 2,886 MW of electricity in the queue.

Much of the installed wind power capacity to date -- 130 MW, or enough to power about 50,000 homes -- represents one wind farm, Iberdrola Renewables Inc.'s Dry Lake facility near Snowflake in north-central Arizona. The two-phase project was completed in December 2010.

The American Wind Energy Association has estimated there is 10,904 MW of installed wind power potential in the state. Overall, NREL estimates wind power could supply 40 percent of the state's current electricity needs.

In addition to the Mohave County Wind Farm, BLM is reviewing five other pending applications for wind projects in the state that would cover about 60,000 acres of federal land.

Wind energy developers are starting to look closer at Arizona, said Sarah Propst, executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance, a trade association that represents leading companies in the renewable energy industry in six Western states, including Arizona.

The state's wind resource is better than most people realize, Propst said, and advances in wind turbine technology have made "even areas that used to be considered marginal for utility-scale wind energy develop viable."

"I think over time we'll see more in Arizona," Propst said. "Obviously, the solar resource is incredible, but there are opportunities for wind in Arizona."

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