From its base to the tip of its rotor, the GE 1.5 megawatt wind turbine is 380 feet tall. Each rotor blade is 122 feet long. It took 325 people five months to erect the 158 turbines on this 13,500-acre wind farm.
Laine Anderson, a mild-mannered guy with a mop of blond hair, rattles off the stats, and throws in some more: Weight of each turbine (450,000 pounds); number of semi-trucks to haul one turbine (six to eight). Anderson is the operations manager for the PacifiCorp Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind farm. A big metal building houses his office. Inside, a dry erase chalkboard has a list of to-do tasks scrawled on it, including, “Mice in turbines, exterminator.” Just down the hall, two desktop computers monitor the entire farm, providing reams of real-time information on each wind machine.
Anderson was born in Encampment, in the southern part of the state, graduated from the University of Wyoming and became a petroleum engineer. Later, wanting a change, he turned to wind and landed here. Anderson and his colleagues — about a dozen full-time contractors — tend to the farm. The turbines need checkups every six months or so, as well as occasional tinkering in between. “Basically,” Anderson says, “it’s a never-ending job. They’re worse than cars sometimes.”
He takes me on a tour in a big white truck, making me wear a hardhat because turbine blades can throw chunks of ice. From the top of a hill, as a bunch of antelope amble nearby, Anderson points southward through the forest of windmills to a huge plume of steam that marks the Dave Johnston power plant. Then he motions to the earth all around where we stand. The wind farm sits on the reclaimed remnants of an old, giant coal mine; all this land was once torn up, gouged by draglines, its carboniferous bounty burned in the plant down below. “We wanted to take a coal mine,” says Anderson. “And make it useful.”
Anderson never mentions climate change. In fact, in all my conversations with Wyomingites about wind, the term rarely comes up. That shouldn’t be surprising. The idea of increasingly extreme weather events doesn’t mean much when you already live in a place where snowdrifts can bury your cows, and a wind gust can flip a dozen tractor-trailers on a single stretch of highway. Rising sea levels are hard to imagine in the inland heart of energy country, where mysterious fracking fluids come out of the faucet and power lines are strung like spaghetti across the plains. And where allowing a bunch of windmills onto your land could keep you from having to sell out and move to the suburbs.
In Wyoming, there are two struggles. One is between the old school of energy and the new; the other pits the local view of energy against the global view. In the end, the failure to reconcile these dichotomies may be far more harmful to Wyoming’s economy than any endangered species listing. More and more, the market is going to demand clean energy. Right now, however, Wyoming is not prepared to supply it.
To many, the Glenrock wind farm is a symbol of a brighter future, in which Wyoming’s wind helps it atone for the sins of fossil fuel. Jonathan Naughton, the director of the University of Wyoming’s Wind Energy Center, envisions a world in which the state’s energy struggles give way to synergy. What if, he asks, wind provided the massive amounts of power that the fossil fuel industry now consumes? New turbines would sprout from old gas fields, their compressor stations and other facilities powered by wind, and wind-powered electricity could gasify coal underground — a cleaner method of using coal. Says Naughton, “There are some really interesting, unexplored, symbiotic things between our energy sources.”
But in the meantime, Wyoming still faces wind resistance. The Converse County meeting ended with the planning commission voting to recommend a moratorium for the whole county. The county commissioners shot the moratorium down, but the NLRA still plans to pursue it. And the struggle goes on.
After saying goodbye to Anderson, I hit the road again, stopping at a place where it nuzzles up against the wind-farm’s boundary. I slither through the fence and walk up to a turbine, until I’m directly beneath its blades. The only sound is a low-pitched sort of watery sigh, kind of like a slowed-down version of an unborn baby’s heartbeat on an ultrasound. No gears grind or scream on this solitary giant, nothing spews out of it, no drill bits penetrate, and no strange fluids are shot into or sucked out of the earth. The wind blows, the arms turn, and electrons flow through cables, down the tower, under the ground, and into the power lines where they’ll join up with the coal-generated electrons 13 miles away. They flow into the bloodstream of the omnipotent, tentacled organism called the grid. Somewhere, someone flips a switch. And there is light.
Jonathan Thompson is editor of High Country News.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
For more information on Wyoming Wind and the politics surrounding it, see the related sidebars: The battle for the core of Wyoming and The messy mix of energy and sage grouse. Click on the live links in the text above (for sources, documents, links to specific organizations, etc.) Also, keep an eye on the excellent energy coverage by Dustin Bleizeffer and his colleagues at the Casper Star-Tribune. The Wyoming Wind Symposium in August gave a very comprehensive, multiple-viewpoint look at the issues surrounding wind, from the economics of a wind farm, to concepts such as “wind rights,” which would split wind development rights from the land (leading to a split-estate possibility). Powerpoint materials and videos (click on “Other Events” then “Wyoming Wind Symposium”) from the presentation are available.