As you head east on Highway 94, pastures sweep across the horizon, interrupted by only an occasional barn or grazing cows and horses. Here, the wind blows. And here, near Calhan, 28 miles east of Colorado Springs, three different companies over the last seven years have envisioned a swath of wind turbines dotting 25,000 acres. But it was only a vision.
Now, NextEra Energy Resources, the biggest wind-power producer in the country, says it will finally erect dozens of turbines, making this its sixth wind farm in Colorado, where the potential is huge for wind-energy growth.
Already, 1,530 wind turbines produce 13.8 percent of the state's electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But wind power, the association reports, is capable of much more. The AWEA estimates wind could supply 24 times the state's current electricity needs — a number not lost on NextEra.
While the first two companies ushered the wind farm through land acquisition and permitting, NextEra says it's prepared to build the 250-megawatt wind farm and has all of its power for 25 years already contracted to Xcel Energy, which serves a good portion of Colorado, including Denver. Minus any unexpected obstacles, the farm will produce power by late 2015, company officials say.
Clipper Wind originally proposed the wind farm and began acquiring easements from landowners in 2007 or 2008, El Paso County officials say. But in recent years, the company changed its focus from building wind farms to servicing turbine components, a company official says via email, so it sold the Calhan project, known as Golden West Power Partners, to Fowler Wind Energy a year or so ago. Fowler then hammered out a development agreement with the county and won county commission approval Dec. 19 ("Long winded," News, Dec. 25, 2013).
Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 31, NextEra acquired the project, Next-Era's project developer, David Gil, says in an interview.
A dozen people spoke against the project at the Dec. 19 commission meeting, with concerns related to noise and property values, among other things. L.J. Mott, an engineer from Calhan, also made a case on a website dedicated to opposing the wind farm that tax credits for the project would be excessive. Last year, three-county.org put his estimate of the subsidy at "$143,225 per year for each turbine."
But it's not quite that simple, says Gil. The project probably will qualify for wind energy production tax credits, he says, by acquiring the farm just before they expired last year. But exactly how much those would be worth likely is a complicated computation based on the actual energy produced, not the stated capacity of the wind farm.
"You only get credits if you produce wind energy," he says, adding that the government has always played a key role in the energy industry and still pays subsidies for domestic nuclear power, coal, natural gas and oil production.
Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall support renewing the tax credits, which were blocked in a Senate vote May 15.
"The wind tax credit is an economic driver for Colorado's diverse energy industry," Bennet said in a release, noting that Colorado generates the sixth-highest percentage of power from wind in the nation, is home to several wind energy developers and turbine manufacturers, and has 5,000 workers employed by the industry.
NextEra officials say the local project will create about 400 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs, fewer than half the 980 jobs predicted when the project was labeled Golden West.
The project will generate about $3 million in county use taxes, which are sales taxes paid on construction materials. The county assessor's office estimates the wind farm also will pay business personal property taxes to local taxing districts; Calhan School District RJ1 will receive about $513,844 a year, and the volunteer-based Calhan Fire Protection District, about $124,000 a year — more than doubling the $114,500 it usually collects in property taxes. The county abolished its business personal property tax in the 1990s.
Been there, done that
While other companies failed to carry out the project, NextEra has the experience and financial heft to follow through, company officials say. It has 100 wind farms in 19 states and Canada that generate more than 10,200 megawatts of power. The Calhan wind farm's capacity is expected to rival the city's Drake Power Plant's generation capacity of 254 megawatts.
NextEra has five wind farms in Colorado, all in the northeast portion of the state, with a combined output of nearly 1,000 megawatts. The company's holdings also include natural gas and nuclear facilities, and a collection of solar projects in California, Nevada, New Mexico and New Jersey.
The company is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, Inc., of Juno Beach, Fla., which reported revenues of $15.1 billion for 2013.
Gil said construction will begin on the Calhan project early next year and that it will be operational by December 2015, including a 25-mile transmission line NextEra is building to connect with the grid.
A dozen residents opposed to the wind farm who spoke at the December commission meeting raised concerns ranging from noise to road damage to wildlife impact. Some of those concerns are addressed in a 98-page development agreement that requires NextEra to pay the county a one-time $1.625 million development fee, a one-time $200,000 fee to county parks and an annual $50,000 payment to cover county costs, such as inspection of roads and emergency response.
The agreement also dictates the color of turbines ("FAA-approved off white color Light Gray"), placement of transmission lines, and road maintenance, which could be considerable, given the weight of turbines that must be brought in and rotor blaades that can span 100 feet or longer.
Although permitted for up to 147 turbines, NextEra won't build that many, Gil says. The number, he adds, will depend on what type of turbine the company chooses.
One hurdle that lies ahead is clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department. Gil says that Clipper previously obtained FAA permits for the turbines in a process that involved the Pentagon's cooperation, and adds, "We're going to have to go through that same process. What I've heard from our aeronautical consultants, these things [radar systems and airport flight patterns] change on a regular basis. It's a process. I hope it's not an obstacle."
Turbines definitely will be an obstacle to views of the horizon from the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, which sits less than 650 feet from one of the turbine sites, and there's not much to be done about that. But Gil notes the turbines will be scattered over the project area in a way that allows for other uses.
"We're using a very small portion of that 25,000 acres," he says. "People will continue to use it for agriculture, farming and cattle. We co-exist with the landowners."