Willcox wind farm breaks ground

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Glenn Holliday, land manager with Torch Energy Advisors of Houston, and Ron Wyllie, with Rummel Construction, of Scottsdale, were at the site of Red Horse 2 Wind Farm northwest of Willcox last Friday, Dec. 20 for an official groundbreaking for the 26-turbine project.

Located in a rural area known as “Allen Flats” on state trust land, the wind project is the first of this magnitude in Cochise County.

At that time, a road alongside the planned turbine row was under construction. 

“We’ve graded about a mile of the three-mile road. It will have to be compacted and then aggregate added, so that the large equipment, including cranes, can be used safely,” said Wyllie.

A quarter-million gallon pond was also under construction, which will hold water for use in compacting the road, as well as dust mitigation, he said.

Stakes were being placed where the 26 turbines will be located by employees from Souder, Miller Associates of Safford, the company that has been doing  the surveying for the project, Holliday said.

It was “the start of significant construction,” he told the Range News.

“We will be working feverishly, trying to get as much done as possible before the end of the year.”

Torch Renewable Energy, LLC, was required to break ground by Dec. 31 to cash in on federal tax credits for renewable energy sources, the company’s president Jonathan Killberg, said in April.

The shipment of turbines is expected in February 2015, Holliday added, with a rough opening date of early summer 2015.

Prior to that, a job fair will be held in September or October 2014, for construction  contracts, he said. 

Holliday said that they are keeping applicants on file who have contacted them through their website, www.torchwind.com

There will be about 100 to 150 employees at the height of construction, and about four to six full-time employees when the farm is up and running, Holliday said.

He explained that Mortensen Construction “will be in charge of the hiring, under our direction.”

Asked about its contribution in the meantime to the local economy, Holliday replied that, “We have been sourcing rock from Willcox Rock and Sand, buying water locally, and our crew will be staying at Holiday Inn Express (in Willcox).”

While that “crew” consists of “eight or 10 guys for this phase, there will be a much larger crew in the next phase.”

“We have been measuring the wind since last September with meteorological towers. There is less than six meters/second annual average wind speed. We were hoping for 6.1 m/s,” Holliday said.

“But this is a good area for many reasons. The elevation is between 5,000 and 5,400 feet, where you get better wind,” he said. 

It’s also accessible, as it’s relatively flat, and it is fairly remote, he added. 

“That makes construction and maintenance easier.”

On April 10,  County Planning and Zoning commissioners approved the special use permit for the 28-turbine wind farm.

“The County PZ has been incredible to work with. They’ve gone above and beyond – helping to get us to the point where we can start this project tomorrow,” Holliday said prior to the official groundbreaking.

“Sue Russell and Ruben Ojeda, with State Land, and Commissioner (Vanessa) Hickman helped us clear some hurdles.”

The project called for 28 turbines that could be as tall as 497 feet, with blades up to 192 feet in diameter, that will produce up to 51-megawatts of power.

“We have compressed some sides to address concerns and to minimize our impact to the site,” Holliday told the Range News.

County Planning Manager Michael Turisk said during his April 10 presentation that the site consists of 5,760 acres of state land and a small plot of private property near the Winchester Mountains. Only 220 acres or  about two percent of the total acreage would be cleared for the wind farm that will produce enough energy for around 15,000 homes.

Tucson Electric Power has a transmission line near the site and has agreed to purchase power produced by the wind farm for the next 20 years, Turisk added.  

He also explained that great strides have been made in turbine technology over the past few years to reduce noise, though some studies indicate there is a low-frequency vibration that may not be heard, but could possibly be felt and could lead to illnesses.

Being near the Willcox Playa and the thousands of wintering birds that feed in the area, there is concern for migrating birds and the bats that visit during monsoon season. However, Turisk said Arizona Game and Fish (AGF) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) will provide ongoing studies of the impact the wind farm may have on wildlife. Turisk said a golden eagle pair that nests the area, the bald eagles that find winter foraging within 10 miles of the site and the long-nosed bats that frequents the area are all protected species and will be monitored by the wildlife agencies. 

In a letter to the county from AGF dated March 25, Ginger Ritter, project evaluation program specialist, states: “It is our understanding that per the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and subsequent guidance drafted by USFW, the locations of, and activities of, golden eagles and active nests both on Red Horse Wind and the vicinity may ultimately influence turbine locations, depending on turbine setback recommendations put forth by the Eagle Conservation Plan, which will be developed by the applicant, USFW and Arizona Game and Fish. … After review of the special use permit application and available data on the project, the department recommends postponing approval of the application until more wildlife data is available to assess the applicant’s affects on wildlife populations. If this is not possible, we recommend putting our recommendations as conditions to the permit.”

That request was not included in the conditions set by the County staff for the special use permit.  

Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival Chairman Homer Hansen has also expressed disapproval of the project due to its danger to area and migrating birds.

Turisk said that there is little that can be done to prevent the “flicker effect,” which is the term used for the shadows cast by the moving turbine blades. That will not affect any residences, since the nearest home is two miles away.

Though the Nature Conservancy operates the Muleshoe Ranch Preserve near the wind farm, Turisk said the organization had no comment either for or against the proposal. The same position was taken by Arizona Audubon.

Dust mitigation caused by construction and maintenance trucks was a condition of the commissioners’ approval, as was a $3 million up-front fund to cover the costs of county road maintenance. The project will take access from I-10 north to Taylor Road, to West Airport Road, to East Three Links Road, to North Muleshoe Road, and tying in on North Warbonnet Road, Turisk said. These roads are to be maintained during construction and delivery of the components of the turbines and the county wants to ensure that will be done. 

Another condition of approval sets a three-year limit from the date of approval for substantial construction to begin, or the special use permit will be revoked. 

Both the Cities of Benson and Willcox support the wind farm, as does the Willcox Regional Economic Development Alliance and the Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group. 

Holliday said last week that he believes that “all stakeholders will be happy with the final result.”

“We’re thankful for the support we’ve gotten from the community,” he told the Range News.

“We believe that we’re going to be a good partner, and we look forward to moving into the future.”

Torch has 23 projects currently at different stages of development, with two of those in the late stages of the project.

One of their projects, Macho Springs Wind Farm, near Deming, N.M., has 28 turbines and provides about 51 megawatts of power, enough to provide renewable energy for 12,000 homes. Developed by Element Power and finished in late 2011, TEP has a 20-year purchase agreement with the farm, developed by Element Power, according to UniSource Energy Services Website.

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