This overview is the first of a series of blogs about the Lava Ridge Wind Project and renewable energy projects in Idaho. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs on this important issue.
Idaho’s first major wind energy proposal on public lands – the Lava Ridge Wind Project – is facing hurricane-force headwinds as it tries to go through the permitting process. The project is proposed by LS Power (with Magic Valley Energy as the local subsidiary). LS Power has a track record of developing transmission lines and other energy projects across the U.S. ICL’s blog from 2021 gives an overview of the project, its initial promise, and the concerns the project has raised.
The project proposes the construction of up to 400 turbines on about 84,000 acres of federal, state, and private land northeast of Twin Falls. As proposed, the turbines for the project would stand between 390 and 740 feet tall. While wind turbines are commonly seen on private lands along the Snake River Plain, the fact that the Lava Ridge project would be among the largest in the West, and on public lands, has raised concerns from the local community, in part because much of the power generated would not stay in Idaho but would be exported into the Western energy grid.
The public’s take on the project
There are many reasons people oppose the Lava Ridge project. Some are based on legitimate concerns over impacts to cultural resources, traditional uses, wildlife and the viewshed. For example, Lava Ridge’s initial proposal to place turbines within two miles of the Minidoka National Historic Site raised alarms that the project was not well-vetted or appropriate. However, other concerns appear to be based on misinformation about negative impacts to water or public health effects, with some people regurgitating anti-renewable myths straight out of Big Oil’s antiquated playbook. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in and around the project also have a lot of meaning to the local community. Nearby residents, ranchers, recreationists, municipalities, Governor Brad Little, and Idaho’s Congressional delegation have all submitted letters criticizing the project and asking the BLM to deny the permit.
The last time citizens of the Magic Valley stood up like this in opposition to a project was in 2005, when they stopped a 6-MW coal-fired power plant near Jerome. That project was proposed by San Diego based SEMPRA Energy and would have resulted in extensive local air and water pollution impacts, degraded the quality of life, and exacerbated climate change. The project was canceled and the collaborative campaign was deemed a remarkable success story.
It was smart to say no to coal, but renewable energy projects are going to play an essential role in helping Idaho and the rest of the U.S. transition away from fossil fuels and toward energy independence. In the fight against global warming, the federal government is putting forth a record $370 billion into clean energy. President Biden is aiming for electricity to be 100% carbon-free by 2035, and many states and utilities are already planning to ramp up wind and solar power projects.
The last five years were the hottest on record, and wildfire seasons in Idaho are now 80 days longer than they used to be. We cannot pretend that our way of life is going to stay the same if we don’t add renewable energy projects:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Clean energy is a big piece of fighting climate change. Putting our region on a path toward a clean energy future also helps address historic social injustices, as fossil fuel production facilities have traditionally been located near lower income communities and communities of color. Rooftop solar projects alone are not going to replace fossil fuels, which is why we need to find suitable places for utility-scale projects. The Snake River Plain has considerable wind and solar potential, and a growing network of transmission lines linked to the western grid. By locating projects near transmission lines, you can avoid constructing hundreds of miles of new transmission lines through undisturbed public lands and backyards.
It is important to recognize that such large wind projects can have significant effects on the local environment, historical resources, wildlife, and surrounding communities. Poorly located projects can have bad impacts. This is why projects need to be designed smart from the start to first avoid impacts, then minimize the effects, and finally mitigate remaining issues. There are examples of wind projects that are designed smart from the start that coexist with ranching operations, are water efficient, and avoid impacts to wildlife. When matched with mitigation and the removal of fossil fuel plants, these projects can bring a net positive to wildlife and public health (as well as a livable climate). Clean energy options are also the lowest cost way to provide power while protecting air quality and the climate.
While we are encouraged that the BLM is examining other alternatives in an effort to reduce some of the associated impacts of the Lava Ridge Wind project, it is not clear if any of the action alternatives proposed strike the right balance of advancing clean energy goals while protecting the public land values that make our communities special. ICL will be taking a hard look to see if there is a different configuration that can address these concerns. We are also encouraging the BLM to take a much broader look at the suitability of places for projects like these and take steps to protect areas that are not appropriate for development. In coming weeks, we will dive into a review of the impacts the project would have on public lands and wildlife, as well as the role that renewables play in addressing climate change.
The BLM Shoshone Field Office is currently seeking public comment through April 20, 2023 on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project. We encourage you to read the entire ICL blog series, review the DEIS, research the issues and submit your comments to the BLM. There are also opportunities to learn more, ask questions, and voice concerns at in-person and virtual public meetings hosted by the BLM. For more information on those, head to the BLM’s website.
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