Developer exploring potential for wind farm north of Tucson

Apr 24, 2022, 12:00 PM

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)...

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A developer is exploring the potential for what would be Arizona’s biggest wind farm on an expanse of high desert in Pinal County about 30 miles north of Tucson.

But the company’s plan to erect up to 83 wind turbines at the site known as Oak Wells has already drawn opposition from local ranchers who say the wind farm would harm rangeland as well as the environment and native wildlife.

Oak Wells Wind LLC, an Arizona company set up by Boston-based Galehead Development, has been testing the winds with a test station set up in the area since last fall, has conducted initial studies on local bird populations and met with state and federal wildlife officials.

Galehead has partnered with Steelhead Americas, the North American development arm of Danish wind-turbine maker Vestas, to study the wind resource in a roughly 44,000-acre “area of interest.”

No decision has been made on moving forward with the wind project, which if built at a proposed capacity of up to 300 megawatts would be the largest in the state, a manager of the project said.

“At this point in time, we are still assessing the viability of a wind farm in the Oak Wells area, but we believe there would be strong interest if it is shown to be a viable area for development,” said Patrick Brown, a project development manager for Vestas.

That’s not a certainty — the wind-power potential for most of Arizona, including the vast majority of Pinal County, is rated poor or marginal.

While no buyer for the wind power has been lined up, Brown noted that Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s biggest electric utility and the power provider in the Oak Wells area, plans to acquire 600-800MW of renewable energy over the next two years to meet a goal of supplying 100% renewable energy to its customers by 2050.

Oak Wells Wind’s application for at wind test station was supported by a major landowner in the area, Tucson-based Anam Inc., which has run its cattle in the area for years and stands to reap lease revenue from the proposed wind farm.

In the early 2000s, Anam proposed a housing development of up to 28,000 homes on its Willow Springs Ranch land near the wind-farm site.

While the Oak Wells wind project is still in the exploratory phase, it already has attracted opposition from a group of local cattle ranchers.

In January, the Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association penned a letter to Oak Wells Wind and local and state officials, opposing the wind farm project on grounds it would threaten rangeland improvements crucial to ranching, as well as to local wildlife, including water developments, erosion-control structures and grazing management programs.

“We oppose such a large-scale project within our membership area,” said the group, which was founded in 1955 and represents ranching families in Pinal, Pima and Santa Cruz counties. “Many of the lands potentially affected within the project area are multi-generational ranches, some of which have been continuously operated for nearly 150 years under single family ownership.”

The ranchers’ association said the rangeland improvements and grazing schedules will be impacted by the new access roads, construction sites and staging areas during construction of the proposed wind farm.

Association member Katie Cline, whose family has ranched in the area for decades, said the wind farm developer has included some private land in its project study area without consulting the landowners.

“That’s why our hackles our super-raised right now,” said Cline, whose family currently runs about 350 head of cattle on the Flying UW and Haydon Combe ranches.

The cattlemen’s association also says the wind farm would open the door to further development in the area, resulting in further loss of rangeland and harm to wildlife, noting that the project area is within the Pinal County Wildlife Connectivity Assessment that was created to support Pinal County’s Open Space and Trails Master Plan.

The prospective wind-farm area is important migratory route “for numerous large and small local and international wildlife species,” including desert bighorn sheep, the group said. The area also is habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, currently proposed for a threatened-species listing, as well as the Sonoran desert tortoise, a protected species in Arizona and a candidate for federal “endangered” status.

A long-running tortoise study conducted by local ranchers is within the entire footprint of the area proposed for the wind project, and the wind farm could push the tortoise into endangered status, with “serious consequences for all private, state and federal lands in the Southwest.”

“We actually have a pretty healthy population of Sonoran desert tortoise out here, and our family has actually studied that tortoise for over 30 years and kind of helped keep it from being listed (as endangered),” Cline said.

Vestas’ Brown said the company is aware of the ranchers’ concerns and is committed to working with community stakeholders and private landowners to address any concerns about a potential wind farm disrupting ranching operations.

“Once a turbine is constructed, ranchers are able to run cattle right up to the base of the turbine,” Brown said, noting that each wind turbine takes up about a half-acre of land including an access road.

“Cattle are able to coexist with wind turbines with no issues,” he said, adding that wind projects also provide additional, yearly income to landowners that increase their financial security.

Developers of the Oak Wells project initially have targeted the fourth quarter of 2024 to put the wind farm in operation, but Brown said the initial plans could change.

The project must clear a series of federal, state and local regulatory hurdles.

Oak Wells Wind got a temporary special land-use permit from Pinal County last fall to erect the test station in private land in the area to gather wind data through August. The company has not yet filed a development plan with the county for the wind farm itself.

In November, Brown said, project representatives met online with officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to discuss the early findings of a studies on protected species possibly inhabiting or using the wind-farm area, and additional field studies to evaluate risk and guide wind-turbine siting to minimize potential impacts on birds, following the USFWS’ Land-based Wind Energy Guidelines and Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance.

In an initial site study presented to the wildlife agencies, the developer lists the likely or possible presence of federal and state protected species, including birds, reptiles — including the Sonoran desert tortoise and gila monster — and mammals, including bats and plants.

Additional required studies will be completed over two years, but Brown said the company doesn’t anticipate needing permits from USFWS “unless unavoidable impacts to protected species are expected,” which will be determined after reviewing additional studies.

The findings and next steps will be discussed with the agencies, which could include application of “best management practices” for construction and operations, additional studies, or permitting and mitigation measures, Brown said.

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Developer exploring potential for wind farm north of Tucson