Sweetwater County OKs tough new wind farm rules

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

CASPER, Wyo. — The wind energy industry has 43 pages of new rules to follow if it wants approval to operate in Sweetwater County — perhaps the most comprehensive guidelines in Wyoming.

Tuesday, the Sweetwater County Commission passed new rules that take effect immediately. The rules are unique because they regulate low-frequency noise levels from turbines, Commissioner John Kolb said. They also specify how wind power projects can affect people’s views, how public input should occur, how developers should get bonding on turbines and how much space is necessary between turbines, power lines or other wind energy structures and cities, subdivisions, roads, railroads, wildlife refuges or recreation areas.

Wind energy developers must follow the rules to obtain a permit from the county. The county permit would give developers a number of permissions — from building roads to rights of way, Kolb said. Typically, developers would approach Sweetwater County after they have received federal government approval to operate on public land but before they get a permit from the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council, Kolb said.

If the county declines a permit, state law prohibits the Siting Council from permitting a project, Kolb said.

Sweetwater County temporarily halted wind farm applications pending updates to the county’s old rules, some of which conflicted with new state standards for wind farm permitting.

“Our old regulations weren’t really that good,” Kolb said. “It wasn’t that they didn’t have good intentions. When you write something in regulation it needs to be done in a proper way. Sometimes you inevitably negate something in a regulation you wrote.”

Sweetwater County commissioners reviewed wind power regulations in other Wyoming counties and found them to be similar to the old Sweetwater rules, Kolb said.

“Maybe they’re working on new ones but the old ones certainly aren’t like this,” he said of the new rules.

The Sweetwater Planning and Zoning Commission also researched wind energy regulations in other local governments across the country, and found there was only one other that regulated low-frequency noise from wind turbines. It’s in the state of New York, Kolb said.

The Sweetwater regulations have limits on medium-pitch noise levels, too, Kolb said. The rules also require wind farms be quieter during the day and when near private property.

Kolb said that the county hired a sound expert to assist in the regulation. The sound expert brought New York state residents to Sweetwater County. They testified on what it’s like to live near a wind farm, Kolb said. They said it affects their quality of life and health.

“It’s typically a steady sound pressure wave,” Kolb said. Or to put it another way, he said: “You feel it more than you hear it.”

The new rules require wind energy developers to create a model and make it available for the public to see what the project would look like from at least 25 vantage points, Kolb said. Each vantage point must have a 360-degree view of the project site. The old rules required consideration to views, but it wasn’t as specific as the new rules, he said.

The new rules also come with bonding requirements. The bonding would pay for remediation of the land and removal of the turbines if a project is abandoned. The old rules had no bonding requirements, Kolb said.

While a committee of county residents researched and wrote the new rules, there was a moratorium on new wind projects. The moratorium began in February 2012.

“We presently have no wind applications for wind farms,” Kolb said. “We do not have any old applications for wind farms. We have no wind farms in Sweetwater County, period.”

But two developers are working with the Bureau of Land Management to build projects in Sweetwater County, said Serena Baker, a BLM spokeswoman. If they get the federal approvals, they would approach the county for a permit, Kolb said.

One project, White Mountain Wind Farm, is on hold because of unavailability of connecting transmission lines and a general slowdown in the market, Baker said.

The other project, Quaking Aspen Mountain Wind Farm, is proceeding at a slower pace than in the past. The developer is hoping to begin construction with the Gateway West Transmission Line Project in 2016, Baker said.

A project manager for Evergreen Wind Power Partners LLC, the developer of the Quaking Aspen Mountain Wind Farm, did not return messages from the Star-Tribune on Thursday.

Kolb said that the commission isn’t anti-wind energy. Commissioners want to protect the county’s residents, he said.

“The goal is responsible wind development,” he said.

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