Owyhee County Windfarm Update

Owyhee County was the first county in Idaho to write an energy plan, but until now it has not landed a significant renewable energy project. That may change soon if the county signs off on what would be one of Idaho’s largest wind farms.

The Owyhee County Planning & Zoning Commission held a day-long hearing Oct. 6 on an application by American Wind Group to build a 60 megawatt community wind farm near Murphy. The project would consist of three eight-turbine wind turbine arrays located about one mile from each other on parts of 5,000 acres of existing agricultural land. American Wind also plans to build a research center on the site to attract wind researchers, educators, scientists, students and others to advance research into areas such as wind forecasting, wildlife impact, energy storage technologies, and integrating wind power into existing power grids.

The project site is mostly east of Highway 78 about five miles southeast of Murphy and 27 miles south of Nampa. It’s adjacent to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, which means developers will need to consult state and federal wildlife biologists to address concerns about possible plant and wildlife impacts from the huge towers and blades. The site is also less than 10 miles southwest of Idaho Power’s Swan Falls hydroelectric project on the Snake River.

If built, the project would cost an estimated $120 million and would generate about $9 million in revenues for Owyhee County over 20 years, or between $300,000 and $500,000 a year. That compares to the county’s total budget of about $7.3 million. In addition, the 24 turbines would generate a second income for the 14 or so families on whose property the turbines would be erected. The project addresses many themes contained in Owyhee County’s groundbreaking Energy Plan and would signal the first big step toward renewable energy development in one of Idaho’s largest yet sparsely populated counties, just south of some of the state’s largest population centers in Ada and Canyon counties.

What’s unusual about American Wind’s project is that the turbine arrays would be situated on the perimeter of existing irrigation pivots, or crop circles, as well as parcels where pivots might be built in the future. American Wind principal Brian Jackson of Renaissance Engineering & Design said the wind energy project will be built in such a way as to not interfere with existing farm and ranch operations. While each of the three wind farms would have a generating capacity of about 20MW, they will actually generate an estimated 10 average megawatts of power that will in turn be sold to Idaho Power under three separate 20-year contracts.

At the Oct. 6 public hearing on the project, some 40 county residents filled an Owyhee County Courtroom, and while there were numerous questions, there was no opposition to the proposal. Many of those attending were among the families who have been working the land at the site for half a century.  Jackson, a fourth-generation Idahoan who spent 11 years at Idaho Power before venturing out on his own, has coordinated wind projects in Idaho and as far away as Nome, Alaska.

One area that will require further work between American Wind Group and Owyhee County is the condition of the rural roads in and around the wind farm area. County officials agreed some of them are in poor shape and that the county lacks the means for significant upgrades.  Jackson said the company plans major road improvements once the precise turbine sites are determined and the roads to them are set. That’s a good thing, because the blades alone for the 263-foot towers are 100 feet long and a challenge to maneuver even on good roads.  In addition, the “nacelles,” the bus-sized modules that hold the blade hubs and house the generators, weigh 100 tons. And the super-sized cranes needed to erect the turbines are 40 feet wide.