A Wood River Valley resident has filed a lawsuit challenging Elmore County’s approval of a massive alternative-energy project west of Fairfield.
The $1.5 billion project, proposed two years ago by a company associated with Gooding sheep rancher John Faulkner, would consist of a pumped-storage hydro facility above Anderson Ranch Reservoir, 170,000 photovoltaic solar panels and up to 39 380-foot-tall wind turbines on both sides of U.S. Highway 20 near Cat Creek Summit.
The Faulkner Land and Livestock Co. grazes its sheep on public land in the Wood River Valley each summer, and the sheep trot down Ketchum’s Main Street every October in the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. During an Elmore County Planning and Zoning Commission hearing in July 2016, John Faulkner’s son Jack said the family has been raising sheep for almost 80 years, but is finding survival in that business increasingly difficult, and the energy project is a way to diversify.
The project would be built on private ranch land owned by the Faulkner family and other partners.
The electricity generated would be connected through an 8-mile-long transmission line to a Bonneville Power Administration substation to the west.
The Elmore County commissioners approved five conditional-use permits for the various components of the project in February 2017.
Chris Stephens, who lives north of Ketchum but owns a 3,000-acre ranch property just south of the proposed site for the wind turbines, filed the lawsuit against Elmore County last week, citing 22 alleged errors committed in the approval process and contending that the approval constitutes an uncompensated taking of his property, due to the proximity of the wind turbines.
Despite the county’s OK, the development company, Cat Creek Energy, still has a long way to go to build the complete project. For the hydro portion, it needs a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a water right from the Idaho Department of Water Resources. The Federal Aviation Administration has to sign off on the wind turbines.
Another presumed hurdle is the project’s imposing price tag. The $1.5 billion figure was stated by a Cat Creek Energy representative during the July 2016 P&Z hearing. Since then, the size of the project’s proposed reservoir has doubled.
In a six-month progress report submitted to FERC on Oct. 30, 2017, Cat Creek Energy stated that it had been in discussions with four investor groups. In a progress report submitted April 30 of this year, the company stated that “offers have been submitted, preferences have been tendered and negotiations advanced” toward securing funding.
Phone calls from the Idaho Mountain Express to a Cat Creek Energy representative and to the Faulkner Land and Livestock Co., seeking information on their plans, were not returned.
Project stirs controversy
A pumped-storage hydro plant works by pumping water to the upper reservoir during times of low demand and letting it run downhill to generate electricity during times of high demand. The proposed hydro facility would consist of a new reservoir of up to 100,000 acre feet blocked by an earthen dam at least 3.4-miles long and at least 50 feet high, two 5,600-foot-long, 22-foot-diameter steel penstocks, two 100-foot-diameter concrete silos and two 200-megawatt vertical turbines to generate power.
Project representatives have said the project’s clean energy generation will help the United States transition to a carbon-free society, as well as considerably boost Elmore County’s tax base.
However, residents of the small town of Pine and the surrounding area have had mixed reactions, with some contending that the project would harm the area’s rural ambience, scenery and wildlife.
Elmore County has required Cat Creek Energy to provide a wildlife mitigation plan. In addition, a 40-page development agreement reached between the county and Cat Creek Energy states that the company shall fund conservation efforts regarding sage grouse habitat and work with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to comply with the multistate Sage Grouse Initiative. It also states that the company will maintain communications with Fish and Game and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect fish and wildlife habitats.
In a February 2016 letter commenting on an early draft of the wildlife mitigation plan, Toby Boudreau, the Department of Fish and Game’s Magic Valley regional supervisor, stated that the proposed project lies within a major migration corridor for mule deer, elk and pronghorn moving from high-elevation summer habitats to low-elevation winter range. He said several thousand animals probably use the corridor each year.
Boudreau said the elimination of about 1,000 acres of habitat being used to site the upper reservoir would likely have a funneling effect that “squeezes” migrating big game into areas also being developed for wind and solar and other infrastructure.
In an interview in late April, Magic Valley Regional Wildlife Manager Mike McDonald said the Department of Fish and Game has not reviewed the final version of the wildlife mitigation plan. He said the department hopes to be closely involved as the project moves through the federal permitting processes.
Chris Stephens, who filed the recent lawsuit, said his main concern with the project is its potential impact on the 200 to 1,000 elk that he said inhabit his property at various times of the year.
In an interview last week, Idaho Conservation League Energy Associate Ben Otto said his organization met with Cat Creek Energy representatives about a year ago to discuss the project. Otto said that based on what the ICL knows so far, it’s not a big fan.
“There are a lot of interesting parts, but it doesn’t actually make much sense as a project,” he said.
Otto said the proposal would be more appealing if the wind turbines and solar panels were being used to pump water up to the upper reservoir for the hydropower component, which is the biggest power producer of the three. He said that as the project is proposed, the wind and solar components can’t generate enough power to do that, and the water will need to be pumped using conventional sources of power.
A Cat Creek Energy representative said during the July 2016 P&Z hearing that the company intends to use 100 percent renewable sources for all its power needs. However, Otto noted that most power generation on the regional grid at night, when the water for pumped storage would be pumped uphill, is from coal plants.
Otto also said the ICL has concerns about the potential impacts to raptors and bats. He said observations of the area and the topography there suggest that it is used by flying creatures to move between Camas Prairie and Anderson Ranch Reservoir.
“One of the problems with the project is that we haven’t seen very extensive assessments of the environmental impacts,” he said. “We’ve asked and we haven’t gotten a complete answer.”
Both the FERC license and Bureau of Reclamation permit will require environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. In a letter sent to Cat Creek Energy in March 2017, Bureau of Reclamation Area Manager Roland Springer said the anticipated timeline for a project of this complexity is several years, and is further complicated by the fact that Anderson Ranch Reservoir is habitat for bull trout, an endangered species.
A FERC spokeswoman said Cat Creek Energy holds a preliminary permit, which reserves the site for three years during the planning process, but has not applied for a license. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation said the company has not applied for a permit from that agency either. She said the permit is required because Anderson Ranch Dam is operated by the bureau.
A spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Water Resources said Cat Creek Energy last year requested a one-year delay in processing its water-right application, and that period is set to expire May 16. She said the next step will be to publish the application in the Mountain Home News, and wait to see whether it is contested. She said that if it is not contested, the permitting process is likely to take six months to a year, and if it is contested, it should take a year or two. She said criteria considered in ruling on the application will include whether enough water is available and whether using it would harm others.
If the project is built, Cat Creek Energy will need to find buyers for the power it produces, and that may not be easy. The ICL’s Otto said he knows of no utility in the West that wants to buy the amount of power that the project would produce.
Brad Bowlin, a spokesman for Idaho Power, said, “We don’t forecast a need for new energy resources for several years down the road.”