United States

United States

Citizens positive but county negative

With four Colorado utilities lined up to buy from the two wind farms, by this winter fully three-quarters of Colorado's electric customers will have the option of buying wind power. But almost inevitably some opposition is arising, with questions about the "sacrificing" of land to wind farms as well as concerns about birds.

The race is on to be first to supply wind generated electricity to customers in Colorado. The Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) hopes be offering customers electricity from a proposed 1.5 MW wind facility at Medicine Bow in Wyoming already by November 1. The wind plant, to be developed by Northern Alternative Energy, is scheduled to start generating power one month ahead of the 10 MW Ponnequin Wind Plant being developed by Distributed Generation Systems (DisGen). The Ponnequin wind farm may have its first Nordex wind turbine spinning by December 1 (story page 18).

Wind is having a sizeable impact in Colorado. With four Colorado utilities lined up to buy from the two wind farms, by this winter fully three-quarters of Colorado's electric customers will have the option of buying wind power. As the state's governor Roy Romer said when announcing that his official residence will choose wind, "This energy is reliable, it's affordable, and it's ready to go."

But almost inevitably some opposition is arising. In a surprise announcement, Boulder County says it will not buy electricity -- for its municipal buildings -- from the state's Windsource green pricing programme in case there is potential for harming birds, especially raptors. Windsource has been launched by Public Service Company (PSCo) of Denver and will buy power from the Ponnequin facility. PSCo will also sell power from the plant on a wholesale basis to two smaller utilities, Holy Cross Electric Association of Glenwood Springs and Colorado Springs Utilities, for re-sale to their own green pricing customers. PSCo alone has 1.1 million customers.

Meantime, the Medicine Bow project is drawing a mostly positive response. More than 650 customers and 11 commercial users -- including the local REI outdoor clothing and camping equipment chain store -- have so far signed up for the Wind Power Pilot Programme, which would be for customers of Fort Collins Light & Power. Earlier this year the City of Fort Collins received a national 1997 Innovator Award from the American Power Association for the green pricing programme.

The Medicine Bow site has been known for its giant experimental wind turbines of yesteryear, the Hamilton Standard WTS-4 turbine and the Boeing MOD-2, dismantled in 1986. There has also been talk of installing a Tacke 1.5 MW wind turbine from Germany on top of the WTS-4's 75 foot tower, once the old nacelle has been taken down. Northern Alternative Energy bought dormant wind company, Medicine Bow Energy Inc more than a year ago (Windpower Monthly, May 1997).

Unhappy contrast

Boulder County's negative attitude is in contrast to the enthusiasm for wind power from utilities, big companies and citizens throughout Colorado. More than 3700 customers in total have signed up to Windsource, making it the largest green pricing programme in the United States. Boulder County administrators, however, are questioning the "sacrificing" of land to wind farms as well as voicing concerns about birds.

The county's decision not to buy wind power, announced by county commissioner Jana Mendez, startled the Boulder County Clean Air Consortium -- as well as some county departments and local clean power activists -- when it was publicised in August. Mendez, along with some birds advocates, warns that wind farms in the region could multiply into an "Altamont Pass" in Colorado, in terms of numbers of turbines and bird kills. They especially fear the impact of the lattice towers used with Nordex turbines, rather than the tubular towers of the two Micon 750 units being erected in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

"I don't think the price is worth it," Mendez told a consortium meeting in August. "Do we have the kind of land to consider this? You're asking for large areas of land to be sacrificed. We'd be Balkanising another county, and the birdsÉ" She claimed to have read a report by the California Energy Commission (CEC) on the Altamont Pass and was worried by the data on bird kills. An anti-wind letter was also recently published in the Denver Post, the state's largest newspaper.

But even so, the opposition to wind is not that widespread in Colorado, says attorney Rudd Mayer of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. The fund, an environmental group based in Boulder, was the first to push PSCo to develop renewables when the utility's merger with a Texas utility, SPS, was before Colorado regulators. Mayer says that when she talks to companies about Windsource, those that do not sign up say it is because of the cost, not other factors. Mayer also notes that, ironically, the county health department had been especially keen to buy wind, but cannot now do so.

The City of Boulder, however, is among those supporting the wind scheme and will buy enough green power for its municipal buildings. As a university town it is the most progressive part of Boulder County, which also includes more conservative towns such as Longmont and Lafayette. In addition, Windsource customers include the far larger City of Denver, and IBM and Coors beer brewers.

PSCo assures that the wind plant was sited so that environmental impact -- especially on birds -- would be minimised. In part, the utility was especially keen to avoid problems as it had backed out of a minority ownership of a wind farm proposed for Carbon County in Wyoming in May 1996 because the developer at that time, Kenetech Windpower, had not fulfilled the requirements regarding endangered species, says a PSCo spokeswoman.

Care taken

The utility's project manager, Andy Sulkko, says PSCo worked with federal and state wildlife officials and with private bird experts in choosing the Ponnequin location, in ranching country north of Greeley near the Wyoming border. "I understand they have some concerns," he says of Boulder County, noting there is no perfect site for any wind plant or indeed any kind of power plant. Although the likely choice will be Nordex turbines on lattice towers, they will be relatively large turbines and thus fewer in number. The towers also do not have the horizontal bars which have proved attractive to birds for perching on wind developments elsewhere, he says. Lattice towers were chosen, says the utility's Natalie Goldstein, because they are cheaper than tubular towers.

Even so, opposition to wind because of birds may be around for a while, as fear of raptor deaths is hard to counter. "It's almost an emotional concern, and it's hard to get a rational answer across," Jeff Ackermann, PSCo's project developer for Windsource, told the Daily Times-Call of Longmont. "The great preponderance of wind farms haven't caused problems with raptors." Mayer argues that buying wind power should be seen as similar to recycling -- as part of something far broader. "What we're trying to get across is that Windsource isn't a product you accept or reject. It's an ethic."

She also says that it is wind's novelty that upsets some people. Mayer recalled that after county commissioner Mendez had complained about the appearance of wind farms at a Clean Air Consortium meeting, the politician was asked what she thought of some nearby smoke stacks. And her response, recalls Mayer, was that they did not bother her because she was used to them.

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