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Easing the way for Midwest wind

An environmental review process across a number of America's best wind resource regions in the upper Midwest could simplify and accelerate the development of as much as 13.5 GW of wind power projects lined up in the interconnection queue operated by the federal government's Western Area Power Administration (WAPA). The capacity represents hundreds of potential wind farms.

"We're doing this on a case by case basis, one at a time," says WAPA's Randy Wilkerson. The agency owns transmission lines, markets hydropower, and balances load in 15 Midwest and Western states. It is analysing the environmental impacts of wind power in most of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Currently, WAPA has just 158 MW of wind installed or interconnected in the upper great plains.

Wind projects must still conduct their own environmental analysis, but WAPA's study could provide the agency with a better way to compare environmental impacts against baseline standards such as mitigation strategies, standard construction practices, and best management practices.

These broad environmental studies are known as programmatic environmental impact statements (PEIS). But they do not always guarantee a positive outcome for the affected industries, says Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association. Even so, a potential result of the process is that wind projects might only have to do simple environmental assessments versus full environmental impact statements. "If that's the case, that's something the wind industry would be very interested in," says Jodziewicz. "But it's a little too early to tell if that's in fact their intention or if that would be the outcome."

Jodziewicz says that Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which overseas the vast tracts of federal land in the US, went through a PEIS process. The wind industry's hope was that wind projects would be able to benefit from that study and be allowed to do "more reasonable" studies that do not take multiple years. "Getting that right and getting the policy right and coordinated on the ground is significant and hasn't necessarily worked as well at BLM as we would have liked," says Jodziewicz.

Wind industry representatives at three initial "scoping" meetings held by WAPA early last month were generally supportive, says Wilkerson, but also worried the study could lead to new and additional regulations that might slow the process down.

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