Farming Windpower where the Antelope Play
Julianne Couch gets a lesson in wind farming from a Wyoming operations chief, about wildlife, turbines, and the future of electric power.
Photo: Julianne Couch
From a distance, it appears a white-clad Edward Scissorhands is lying on his back across Foote Creek Rim in southeast Wyoming, lazily waving his blades in the breeze. In fact, that body of swiveling blades, reaching about five miles across this rim, is a massive wind farm with turbines up to 200 feet tall slicing the sky.
Managed by global energy conglomerate AES, the Foote Creek Rim wind farm is Wyoming's first commercial facility to generate electricity from wind. AES hosts five different wind project owners at the site. The wind farm began commercial operation on Earth Day, April 22, 1999, starting with 69 towers co-owned by PacifiCorp (which provides electric service as Rocky Mountain Power in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, and as Pacific Power in Oregon, Washington and California) and the Eugene Water and Electric Board, a municipally owned utility in Oregon.
PacifiCorp is in the process of constructing several new wind energy sites in Wyoming, including the Glenrock, Rolling Hills and Glenrock III projects in Converse County and the Seven Mile Hill and Seven Mile Hill II projects in Carbon County. The company is also obtaining permits to construct the proposed High Plains and McFadden Ridge wind projects on land spanning the border of Converse and Albany counties. These projects will contribute to the 2,000 megawatts of cost-effective, renewable energy resources the utility plans to add to its generation mix by 2013.
Tony Kupilik spent childhood summers in this part of Wyoming and now operates a wind farm. He still stops for June wildflowers.
Photo: Julianne Couch
Tony Kupilik has worked for AES about five years and is in charge of project operations at the Foote Creek Rim wind farm. Formerly employed at an underground coal mine, Kupilik needed a job after the mine closed. He had no special training in wind turbine maintenance at the time but enough mechanical know-how that he was hired by SeaWest, later purchased by AES.
Foote Creek Rim is just off Interstate 80 in Wyoming near the Arlington Outpost, from September to May one of the windiest, iciest, most truck-clogged, road-closed locations in America. Kupilik agreed to give me a tour of the wind farm one Monday morning in June.
Inside the snug office of the aluminum-clad AES building, he pointed out a topographical map showing the steepness of the rim and the width of the flat plateau, with turbine positions superimposed. The land belongs to a checkerboard combination of private owners, the state of Wyoming and the Bureau of Land Management. The public lands are landlocked by private lands, so in theory no hunting or recreating takes place on the rim.
The wind turbines are run by computers housed in a modest control room next to Kupilik’s office. When conditions require it, operators can turn turbines off from there or from AES offices in California, or even from Kupilik’s home in Laramie, about 40 miles to the east. He showed me how to read data on the monitor, one segment for each turbine and for the two meteorological towers. Wind speed is measured in meter-seconds (roughly half of the miles per hour measurement). With average wind speeds at 25 miles per hour, Foote Creek Rim is one of the windiest spots in the U.S.
Kupilik next showed me a schematic drawing for a quick overview of how wind turbines produce power. I’m no mechanic, but it was a comfort to hear some terms I'm familiar with: blade, rotor, tower, brake, gearbox, generator. I felt armed with the basic comprehension needed to head up to the rim and see 134.7 megawatts of electricity generated per hour.
Kupilik showed me to the company's Dodge pickup, and we commiserated about the difficulty of climbing into a truck that sits high off the ground and lacks running boards. “We get so much snow up here in winter they’d just get knocked off,” he explained. As I gathered my camera and notebook, he glided the truck up a gravel road and through a gate taking us down an access road through private property. As the truck climbed toward the rim, we took in views of the green Medicine Bow National Forest just south of the Interstate. Always snowcapped, Elk Mountain loomed in the southwest sky. The wide-open Laramie basin to the east and north opened up below us. Kupilik pointed out some lakes where he used to fish as a Colorado kid who summered with his grandfather in Wyoming. He spent much of his time in Rock Creek Canyon, an area we could just about make out from the truck. Kupilik is close to 50 now, and when he was growing up, this ridge was a short-grass and wildflower plateau in summer, not bristling with spinning rotor blades on tall towers like it is today. “I like the way they look,” he said about the white turbines. “Their being here doesn’t bother me at all ““ I think they look cool.” In fact, Kupilik is reflective about the turn of events that led him to work in a place he so treasures as an outdoorsman. “It makes you think you had it planned all along, the way things work out.”
After a few minutes in the truck we passed the substation that receives power from all the turbines. Kupilik explained that the turbines produce 600 kilowatt volts, regardless of height. A transformer next to each turbine steps the voltage up to 34,000. Power enters the substation through a buried cable and is boosted to 230,000 volts, which travels down transmission lines to Hanna, to another substation. Eventually, the electricity enters the power grid for the western U.S.
A newborn pronghorn antelope lies on the plateau. Elk Mountain, snowy even in June, is in the distance.
Photo: Julianne Couch
We got out of the truck, standing in a steady breeze, and gazed out across the basin, our eyes following the transmission lines to the northwest. We could almost make out tiny Hanna, along with Rock River and Medicine Bow. The ground under our feet was pricked with early wild flowers, and the first of the Indian paintbrush had poked up their red heads over the weekend, since Kupilik’s last trip to the rim. A moment later we spotted, literally in the shadow of a spinning rotor blade, a newborn pronghorn antelope; it lay so still I first took the small gray form for a rock. We’d seen the doe antelope trot off a few moments before we approached, so we took a few cautious steps for a better look. The little fawn never moved a muscle or blinked one of its prominent eyes.
The Foote Creek Rim wind project underwent a thorough review of its environmental, aesthetic, cultural and other impacts in the mid-1990s before it was permitted. “At first people were concerned the wind farm would have a negative impact on wildlife up here, especially the mountain plover,” Kupilik told me. “It seems to me, though, that they are doing fine.” He’s noticed that predators such as coyotes avoid the area more than they once did, perhaps because of the human presence. But he thinks the birds, small mammals and, of course, antelope, are flourishing. “You should see this place during hunting season ““ it is crazy with antelope,” he said. Apparently the antelope prefer this landlocked wind farm to accessible areas where hunters chase and shoot at them each fall.
On top of the rim we saw a few humans in addition to wildlife — AES employees. Summer is a “low wind season,” so that is when they take turbines off line to perform routine maintenance. Kupilik pointed out a turbine with white UV reflective paint marred by oil seeping from the rotor. “We’re going to get that cleaned up. We’re pretty respectful of the environment up here.” Although summer is a busy time for maintenance, it beats working on the turbines during winter. Not only is the icy wind blowing non-stop and the snow falling almost as vigorously, the towers themselves are extremely chilly. Rather like a lighthouse, each tower has a small door at the base and an interior ladder which workers climb to reach the business end at the top. “If the turbine has been running it can stay fairly warm up there, but after a few hours it gets very cold inside,” Kupilik explained, in a voice that said he’d spent a few too many repair sessions in just those conditions. “It is pretty miserable up here in winter.”
Looking up inside a wind tower. Fixing a turbine is "pretty miserable" work in the winter months.
Photo: Julianne Couch
Kupilik is a booster of wind energy but personally doesn’t believe it will answer all our nation’s energy problems. “Is wind the solution?” he asked rhetorically. “Probably not. Is it part of the solution? Probably so.” One problem he sees is the large footprint of a wind farm. He explained that a coal-burning power plant takes up far less space than this facility. The coal plant's footprint could be smaller with taller towers, but other problems — environmental and aesthetic — would need to be solved. He thinks nuclear power is the way the country will need to go.
Kupilik is on the advisory board for the Laramie County (Wyo.) Community College program established to train and certify wind turbine technicians. “It isn’t going to help the industry a whole bunch right away, but now is a good time to get in to the wind industry.” After all, Foote Creek Rim is just one wind farm location, and there are many more across the country and across the globe.
Eventually we shuffled back to the truck, both of us photographing wildflowers and occasionally hearing the swooshing hum of the wind turbines. We discussed the various types of wind turbines and chatted about “pitch” and “yaw” and Kupilik explained the fine points of variable pitch versus fixed pitch turbines. Before climbing back in the truck I asked if he ever felt like throwing a tent in the bed and making camp up here some nights. “Yes,” he replied. “Really?” I asked? “Yes,” he said again. I wasn’t sure if he meant yes he thought about it or yes he had done it. I can almost picture his lone figure against the evening sky on Foote Creek Rim, identifying wildflowers and animal tracks in the moonlight on his way down to a favorite boyhood fishing pond. When Kupilik stretched his arm to take in the whole rim and said “I couldn’t work in a better place,” I had no reason to doubt.
Julianne Couch, freelance writer and frequent contributor to High Country News’ Writers on the Range column, is also the author of Jukeboxes and Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey. She lives in Laramie.