August 04, 2021

Wyoming county learns how to live with solar

For decades, the state of Wyoming has been known for its massive amount of coal that has been mined and sent to many power electric generation plants. Some of that coal has been through Creston on the railroad.

Wyoming is now creating electricity from another source of energy that everybody has – solar. A solar-power facility has been proposed for Union County as county officials begin to develop a policy.

For about the past two years, Sweetwater County, Wyoming, located in the southwest corner of the state, has had about 700 acres of land dedicated to solar power. Of that amount, 638 acres are federal land. The Sweetwater LLC solar-voltaic farm straddle State Highway 372 about 10 miles from Green River and feeds into the regional electric grid via an overhead line to a power substation 2.5 miles away. Project financing is tied to a Rocky Mountain Power 30-year power purchase agreement, or PPA, a standard supplier-user arrangement with utilities. The facility generates 97.9 Mwdc, which is 97.9 megawatts converted to direct current using batteries. That’s enough energy to power 12,000 homes for a year. It was the first commercial, solar-power facility in the state. Electricity generated will be distributed among Rocky Mountain Power in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The land was zoned agriculture and is 7 miles north of Interstate 80.

“If you don’t have regulations, they will do whatever,” Sweetwater County Commissioner Mary Thoman told the Creston News Advertiser. She was elected to the board last year. Commissioners unanimously approved the project in 2018.

She said she has mixed feelings about solar power.

Thoman said she respects the concept of clean, renewable energy sources, but is not sure about the facility over the long-term use.

In 2018, the commissioners approved the permit for the facility for at least three years and a maximum of 30.

“How will they reclaim it and get rid of it,” she asked about how the operation could be removed in the future and the land returned to its natural condition. She said Wyoming is a site to dispose unwanted wind turbine blades that measure more than 100 feet.

“Landfills are filling up with used turbine blades. How do you recycle it,” she added about solar-power components.

Thoman also said the construction of the solar-power site created many jobs, but the number of employees managing the site since it has been in operation are few.

Southwestern Wyoming may remind people of the Western themed movies with its grasslands and shrublands in a dry climate. Major land uses include livestock grazing and mining. Even though towns, people and development are miles away from the site, it has interrupted the natural settings.

“It’s remote. It’s not close to any town. It’s next to a state highway.” said Todd Graham, a regional wildlife supervisor for Wyoming. “From a wildlife or livestock perspective, you just removed a whole bunch of area that has no benefit other than solar energy. The concern is water fowl will think it’s a body of water and attempt to land and potentially die from that. There is some research on that,” he said.

Graham said the site is also along a pronghorn migration route. The entire solar facility is bordered by chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

“There is only one main gate and it’s highly secure. Nobody goes in or out there except for maintenance,” Graham said.

Those pronghorn did the natural thing in late 2019 and found their way.

“They went around,” Graham said about the herd, which can number 1,000. Many of those pronghorn were spotted on the state highway. He said he does not know of any collisions between cars and pronghorn as many of the people who travel the highway were already familiar seeing pronghorn in the area.

Graham said the solar panels do get the attention of people new to the area.

“There is a little bit of a glare, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue. At the right time, it does look like a mirror, but it’s reflecting up.”

Southwestern Wyoming also has potential for coal mining and other materials. By the end of 2019, Sweetwater County Commissioners approved revisions to its ordinance that prevents solar-power facilities from being built in areas where coal mines could open.

“Solar makes it a single use,” said Don Schramm from the Rock Springs Grazing Association about land for solar power. The association is part of a strip of land roughly 40 miles wide and 70 miles along, following the railroad from Tipton to Green River. The land is divided between private and federal land in a checkerboard design but all open to multiple use. Schramm said the land is divided among sheep and cattle production, oil and gas.

“You get land speculators and guys who will permit this and will flip it to somebody you never heard of and they may flip it. Hopefully they will agree with the original requirements.” Schramm said about solar. “The one that is here, we don’t care for it. But it’s like a speck on the front of a car. There are issues. We operate open range use of land. Solar makes it single use and can’t use it for anything else. There is no other use for the land,” he said.

Mining company Ciner told the Green River Star newspaper in 2018 the land where the solar-power site is a potential mining location for trona, a sodium carbonate compound converted into soda ash or baking soda. The Wyoming Mining Association claims the state has the worlds largest supply of trona.

Ciner’s site manager Craig Rood told the Green River Star in 2018 he didn’t like the solar-power operation placed over a trona reserves area.

“It sort of feels like we’re the only ones not excited about this project, but I think we have obvious concerns about placing a huge facility over trona reserves,” Rood said. “We want to mine those at some point in the future. It may not be with mechanical mining that we’re doing now, but, as some of you know, we have a very successful solution mining company in Turkey, that just recently purchased our facility and we are seriously exploring different solutions mining options in Sweetwater County right now.”

Rood said they have an issue with a placing a large facility that doesn’t allow for subsidence, which is the movement of the ground surface as a result of the collapse of underground, man-made mine operations.

He said Ciner employs 430 employees and he was asked to sign a contract with Sweetater Solar LLC stating the company wouldn’t subsidence mine in that area. Rood said he refused to sign it. The story stated the Bureau of Land Management owns the mineral rights to this property, but Rood said it’s part of their plan to obtain them.

Schramm said the association prefers wind energy because other uses of land can be mixed in with wind turbines compared to solar.

Graham said additional solar-power sites are being proposed for Wyoming and hopes much can be learned from the first one.

“The next two, think ahead, plan ahead rather than just thrown at us and mitigate. At least allow some passage ways to break them up. We are concerned about the pronghorn. It went in fast,” he said.

JOHN VAN NOSTRAND

An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.