SHOSHONE, Idaho — There is a push for sustainable energy nationwide, including in the Gem State's Magic Valley. Staff with the Bureau of Land Management are currently evaluating the Lava Ridge Wind Project, while gathering public comments.
If approved, the large-scale wind-power project would result in up to 400 power-generating windmills on federal, state and private land in Jerome, Lincoln and Minidoka counties, about 25 miles northeast of Twin Falls.
From historical to environmental concerns, the Lava Ridge Wind Project has generated controversy, and several groups have been very vocal about their opposition to the proposal.
One group in particular – Friends of Minidoka – argues Lava Ridge would destroy the solitude and remoteness of the area, two important qualities to the non-profit group working to preserve the legacy of the Minidoka National Historic Site.
A painful past lies in Jerome, Idaho.
Many members of Janet Matsuoka Keegan's family were incarcerated at the Minidoka War Relocation Center back in the 1940s.
"You never go out there without thinking of the people that were there," Matsuoka Keegan said. “My grandmother, and her children, and my mom ... all of those people would have been incarcerated at Minidoka.”
Matsuoka Keegan tells their stories through her position on the Friends of Minidoka board. The non-profit educates people about the World War II incarceration experience in south-central Idaho.
More than 80 years ago, the first of around 13,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center. It was one of 10 internment camps across the United States opened to "relocate" people of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II.
The skyline surrounding what is now the Minidoka National Historic Site could soon be filled with massive wind turbines – a project the Friends of Minidoka said would desecrate the sacred site.
“It would destroy that area, and it would definitely harm the experience at Minidoka National Historic Site," Matsuoka Keegan said.
Magic Valley Energy, LLC – a subsidy of LS Power in New York – proposed the Lava Ridge Wind Project in 2020. It resubmitted a revised proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in August 2022.
LS Power's Senior Director of Project Development, Luke Papez, said the proposal has many benefits.
“It's a very large investment with the potential to really invest in the clean energy economy in southern Idaho," Papez said.
The proposed action submitted by Magic Valley Energy called for a project that would span more than 197,000 acres with a maximum of 400 turbines. The proposed Lava Ridge Wind Project area sits about 2 miles north of the Minidoka National Historic Site.
Papez said LS Power evaluated many other potential locations for Lava Ridge.
"We sat down with federal, state, local stakeholders, conservation agencies, and looked at, frankly, areas with much higher wind resource, but were in areas of higher conservation value, more pristine habitats," Papez said.
To avoid building on those "pristine habitats," Papez said the energy company eventually landed on the Magic Valley.
“It’s been impacted by multiple wildfires over the past two decades. It's not in its native state any longer," Papez said. "We saw that as a good factor to try to bring this type of infrastructure into that altered environment.”
While the land is not in its native state anymore, there are still major environmental concerns. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the final say on what happens to the Lava Ridge Wind Project.
The BLM outlined its concerns in its new Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in January 2022. In the EIS, the BLM identifies two "preferred alternatives" in which the acreage (197,000) and number of windmills (up to 400) would be scaled down.
Idaho's Congressional Delegation requested an extension of the public comment period that was originally scheduled to end March 21. Other stakeholders also wanted more time to look through the EIS document since it is so comprehensive, so BLM granted the extension.
The public comment period on the EIS is now open through April 20.
The more than 1,800-page document analyzes the project's impact on things like bats, livestock grazing, greater sage grouse, and climate and greenhouse emissions.
“Over the past two years, the BLM has actually received over 2,500 comments that helped us shape the draft environmental impact statement," BLM spokesperson Heather Tiel-Nelson said.
Eventually, the BLM will create a final EIS. At the end of the day, staff have five options to choose from:
Alternative A (no action): Stopping Magic Valley Energy's project altogether, while maintaining the areas current land uses and activities.
Alternative B (proposed action): Approve MVE's proposal as is, with up to 400 3-megawatt turbines or up to 349 6-megawatt turbines, or a combination of the two not exceeding 400 turbines.
BLM could also approve a different plan altogether, since the draft EIS also outlines alternatives C, D and E:
Alternative C: This alternative calls for reduced western corridors and a project of about 146,000 acres and a maximum of 378 turbines. The BLM says it’s intended to reduce potential impacts to Wilson Butte Cave, the Minidoka NHS, and “the communities that have connections to these places.” It would limit the projects 500-kilovolt transmission line to a single route that would follow the alignment of existing transmission lines. To minimize fragmentation of wildlife habitat, this alternative would not include any turbine-siting corridors north of Idaho Highway 24.
Alternative D: The fourth option would also eliminate the same sitting corridors as Alternative C, while excluding "most of the sitting corridors east of Crestview Road." The idea of Alternative D is to get an understanding of how a reduced-development scenario would look, since the option would have the least total acres in the sitting corridors of any alternative. The EIS said Alternative D avoids development in areas with higher sagebrush that protect the habitat of sage grouse.
Alternative E: The alternative calls for reduced southern corridors and a project area of 122,444 acres and a maximum of 269 wind turbines. The executive summary of the EIS states that the intent of this alternative is to avoid and minimize potential impacts to Minidoka NHS and Japanese American communities associated with the site.
Both of the BLM’s preferred alternatives (C and E), outlined in the executive summary of the EIS, are smaller in area, put the project farther away from the Minidoka NHS, and call for a lower maximum number of turbines than the original proposal (referred to as Alternative B in the EIS).
“That was to reduce those impacts to those special values, the historic interest, the tribal interests, the interest being expressed from the Japanese American community, regarding the Minidoka National Historic Site," Tiel-Nelson said.
Regarding water resources for the Lava Ridge project, Alternative C would use a total of 126.2 million gallons from the construction phase through decommissioning, an estimated period of 34 years. Alternative E would use about 92 million gallons.
Idaho Water Engineering co-owner Dave Tuthill said that’s about 400 total acre feet of water, an impact equivalent to stopping irrigation for a year for all the water the project will need over three decades.
“You could be far right, far left, in the middle, if you live here, and you're in the Magic Valley, southern Idaho," Matsuoka Keegan said. "It’s brought those people together. I haven't talked to anybody that is in favor of it.”
Here are some renderings of what the project could look like from the Minidoka National Historic Site:
The Friends of Minidoka’s Visitor Center is open 45 days out of the year. Out of those 45 days, National Park Service rangers give public tours on about 15 days.
“This project is extremely invasive and as we were talking about, the openness and feeling that you get there, it would be very detrimental," Matsuoka Keegan said.
Papez said LS Power understands the concerns, and are trying to come up with compromises.
“A core development philosophy of our firm is to really sit down and work with all stakeholders to understand what their core concerns are, regarding the siting of this type of infrastructure," Papez said.
Under the initial proposal and both of the BLM’s preferred alternatives, the total project area would encompass an area well over twice that of the Boise city limits. The turbines and other infrastructure for the wind farm would be sited in several corridors, each about a half-mile wide.
The height of each turbine would total, at maximum, 740 feet, according to the plan of development filed with the BLM in 2021. That figure includes a maximum hub height of 460 feet and a maximum rotor diameter of 560 feet – one blade would extend 280 feet from the hub.
The maximum height would be more than double the height of the Statue of Liberty and about 140 feet taller than the Space Needle. For a local comparison, the Zions Bank building in downtown Boise is 323 feet tall.
Lava Ridge Reaction
"The size and the scope of the project, for me is a nonstarter," U.S. Senator for Idaho Jim Risch said. "To take that kind of the thousands and thousands of acres they're talking about and transforming them from an open landscape to this, with all these towers, it's just it's not right.”
Sen. Risch is not the only politician against the Lava Ridge Wind Project. He, along with Gov. Brad Little and some other Idaho lawmakers, sent the BLM a letter in February expressing their concerns.
“There's other ways to generate electricity, Risch said. "And we do generate electricity a lot of different ways without having taken up this huge, huge amount of space.”
Electricity for Idaho and most states in the U.S. is transmitted along power grids that cross state lines. The Energy Information Administration's profile of Idaho states that the "region's transmission lines are increasingly congested, and projects are under way to expand capacity both to supply Idaho with electricity and to transport power among several western states including Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. In the near term, most new generating capacity planned in the region will be fueled by renewable energy sources."
The Energy Information Administration shows about 70% of the energy consumed in Idaho comes from out of state.
"Moving electrons across state lines is not a new item here for Idaho," Papez said.
However, Risch sees it differently.
“I mean, look, this is an out-of-state company from New York coming in here doing this to our land," Risch said. "They're going to take the electricity, not use it here. It's going to be shipped south towards California, where they'll use it.”
A Magic Valley Energy spokesperson told KTVB the proposed project would potentially serve 350,000 homes in Idaho and surrounding states depending on who buys the power.
Papez said thinking all of the energy should stay in Idaho is unrealistic.
“We view this as any of the other great industries in Idaho who locate here, bring their families and their jobs here, generate tax revenue here and produce a product that's either used in state or taken out of state," Papez said. "Anything from ag, potatoes, microchips, dairy products, beef – any of that brings in investment here locally for producing products, either used in Idaho or taken out of state.”
A 500-kilovolt generation intertie transmission line from the wind farm would connect at Idaho Power's existing Midpoint Substation or at a new substation along the northern portion of the Southwest Intertie Project, which is being developed by LS Power. The Southwest Intertie, an alternating-current transmission line, is planned to run from south-central Idaho down the length of eastern Nevada. Smaller 230-kilovolt transmission lines would connect five collector substations on the wind farm to the larger substation.
"If the BLM authorizes this – which I don't think they will – but if they do, I guarantee there's going to be a court fight all the way up, as high as it can possibly go," Risch said. "So, this is not the last word on it. This thing is a long road ahead of us."
But Matsuoka Keegan’s focus is keeping the history of those brought into the state against their will more than 80 years ago.
In 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Minidoka National Historic Site as one of the 11-most endangered historic sites because of the Lava Ridge project.
"Psychologically and physically, it's part of the Japanese-American psyche," Matsuoka Keegan said.
She also said this is not the Friends of Minidoka's first time fending off a potential threat.
“In 2007 or , there was a big transmission line that was proposed to go right through the center of the site," Matsuoka Keegan said. "So, there was a lot of hard work that went into getting that moved away from the site.”
She hopes the Lava Ridge Wind Project is moved, too.
“It’s all one beautiful place in the Magic Valley that we don't want to see – and it's a strong word – destroyed," Matsuoka Keegan said. "It’s not just the Japanese-American experience. It's the whole Magic Valley in southern Idaho, that would be harmed by this project.”
According to Magic Valley Energy's own project timeline, the company projects construction to take place in 2024 and 2025, if the project is approved later this year.
"This is a private investment," Papez said. "We seek to hire as many local contractors, vendors and suppliers as possible to keep the economic benefit local to Idaho."
The public comment period on the draft EIS is open through April 20, 2023. You can view the documents and submit comments through the BLM’s ePlanning project site. Click on the “participate now” button next to the document link, enter your comment and information, then click “submit.”
Comments may also be submitted the following ways:
- Email to BLM_ID_LavaRidge@blm.gov
- Deliver by hand or U.S. Mail in an envelope labeled “Lava Ridge Wind Project EIS” to Kasey Prestwich, Project Manager, BLM Shoshone Field Office, 400 West F St., Shoshone, ID 83352.
Commenters may ask to have their personal information withheld from public review, but the BLM cannot guarantee they will be able to do so. Although BLM extended the public comment period, there will not be any additional meetings.
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