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Foundations are now being poured on land outside Monticello for 308-foot towers that will support 27 massive turbines, driven by 187-foot blades, as part of Utah's latest renewable-energy project.
The ambitious and long-stalled Latigo Wind Park, expected to begin running electricity into the grid by year's end, will be the state's largest wind farm serving Utah homes, with a capacity of 61 megawatts.
But the project is again encountering stiff headwinds and political turbulence, this time stemming from a competitor and a group of landowners who say Latigo's county permits are invalid.
A group calling itself the Northern Monticello Alliance says the project would destroy its property values, the new developer is shirking mitigation requirements, and the conditional-use permit issued by San Juan County three years ago expired long before work began in July.
But the project, named for a strap used on horse saddles, enjoys broad support from nearby property owners, according to Naomi Keller, a spokeswoman for Sustainable Power Group, or sPower, the firm that is building and will operate the wind park.
"There are adjacent areas that don't love the view, but we are doing some mitigating landscaping," which includes windbreak trees, she said.
Her Salt Lake City firm, founded three years ago by former EnergySolutions CEO Steve Creamer, acquired the project from Wasatch Wind early this summer. Wasatch Wind is the Salt Lake City firm that developed the small wind farm at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon. It recently sold a yet-to-be-built Wyoming project to sPower.
Keller added that sPower "has a successful history of working closely with local communities where our projects are located," noting sPower has made "substantive contributions" to Monticello's junior livestock show, Monticello High School and the new Four Corners School of Outdoor Education.
The Four Corners School, nearing completion on the northern edge of Monticello, is the closest structure to Latigo. Its executive director, Janet Ross, has no objection to the turbines that will be easily visible from the school's doorstep.
"I'm fine with the concept of wind energy. SPower is going to be a very good partner," Ross said. "The school wants to provide education for alternative energy. We are kind of the visitor center for the project."
San Juan's political leadership is friendly to industrial development. The county hopes to designate the eastern half as an "energy zone," where oil and gas and other energy project are welcome.
Meanwhile, a competing wind energy developer last month filed a formal complaint over the county's handling of the Latigo permits, alleging conflicts of interests on the part of two officials. Summit Wind Energy wants Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to conduct a criminal probe, alleging Latigo received preferential treatment.
"We take complaints like this seriously and we are looking into it, but further than that we don't comment on active or pending investigations," said San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws.
Wasatch Wind's multi-year effort to get all the Latigo approvals sewn up speaks to the difficulty of getting wind projects off the ground in Utah. The company met key milestones when it secured an interconnection to the grid and a power purchase agreement with Rocky Mountain Power. Those were subject to legal challenges by other developers who were not as successful getting the utility to buy their power.
Summit Wind also is pursuing a complaint against RMP parent PacifiCorp, which is pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Currently, Utah holds 327 megawatts of installed generating capacity with 177 turbines, accounting for 1.53 percent of the state's electrical production, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Most of these turbines are spinning near Milford at the First Wind complex, which sells its power to California utilities.
But because of wind's fickle nature and Utah's high elevation, further wind development may not happen here, while several solar projects, which tap a more predictable source of energy, are in the pipeline.
According to sPower, the Latigo project will generate $10 million to $15 million in tax revenue to the county over its 20-year life, pay lease payments to the land owners, and support up to 100 construction jobs.
The 27 turbines are being erected in three lines in a 3,000-acre project area north of the town. There is an 80-acre block, subdivided into several undeveloped parcels, inside the wind park. Owners associated with this "doughnut hole" are fighting to block the project.
The group is led by Michael Cole, a former Wasatch Wind employee, who addressed a July 28 county commission meeting, insisting commissioners revoke Latigo's building permit and conditional use permit (CUP).
He said Wasatch Wind deliberately failed to provide notice of the CUP hearing, thus denying landowners a chance to challenge the permit. The permit was issued in July 2012 and would have expired in 2013 or early 2014 since no "substantial" work had been completed on the project by then.
Wasatch Wind was fending off legal challenges to its RMP agreements at the time.
Commissioner Bruce Adams said it would not be appropriate to act on Cole's request without hearing from project developers.
"We want business to come to our county and create jobs and pay taxes and do things that businesses do. We want them to treat our citizens in the right way," Adams said. "It seems a little like what is going on here is a negotiation between the two parties to settle an issue. It's uncomfortable for us to get into the middle of a negotiation."
The landowners' challenge to the CUP is to be heard by the county planning commission Thursday.
"We deserve to have fair and reasonable treatment from both the industry and the county," Cole told the county commission.
Ross noted most of the doughnut hole owners are not local residents and Wasatch Wind has paid them as much as $1,100 an acre to compensate for the impact to their property values.
"He can claim anything he wants. They are a little late to try stopping this," Ross said. "They can complain but that doesn't mean they'll get what they want."