It was nearly two decades in the making, yet took just a couple months to build, changing the landscape of the Southeast Utah high desert, and altering the culture of a small rural town.
“What’s happening here, yet again, is an unexpected Old West/New West alliance that is becoming less of a surprise each time it happens,” Canyon Country Zephyr founder Jim Stiles wrote in a column.
Stiles is referring to the 27 newly erected wind turbines on the edge of Monticello, which climb up the ridge of the Abajo Mountains, known locally as the Blue Mountains.
The wind farm was completed in December after the Salt Lake City-based Sustainable Power Group (sPower) bought the “Latigo Wind Project” from Wasatch Power last summer, promising to finally finish the long-stalled project.
And in March, the $125 million wind farm went fully operational. A 10 percent federal subsidy will help support future production.
Despite criticisms that the wind park would not meet generating expectations, largely because of Monticello’s thin air at an elevation of 7,000-plus feet, Latigo is producing power in line with estimates.
“We’re pleased with performance and with the fact that Latigo has been able to maximize the area’s abundant wind resources,” spokeswoman Naomi Keller said.
Located in San Juan County, Utah – about a two-hour drive northwest of Durango – the Latigo project is expected to generate 150 million kilowatt-hours a year, enough electricity to power anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 homes.
“Since the wind park was fully commissioned in March 2016, it has produced more than 30 million kilowatt-hours of energy,” Keller said.
Controversial turbines help economyBut all has not been smooth sailing for the Latigo project, according to Bill Boyle, editor of Monticello’s newspaper, the San Juan Record.
“It’s been ... in process for 15 years, and I think some local people lost patience and thought it would never happen,” Boyle said. “Then all of a sudden: boom, it’s there.”
Disputes with some property owners (the wind farm is on a number of privately owned lots) are unresolved, and tensions ignite every so often at public meetings. sPower declined to comment about the pending legal matter.
The project has also received flak that energy generated will not be routed back into the local grid, and instead is outsourced to PacifiCorp, a northwestern electric company based in Portland, Oregon.
And the 308-foot turbines themselves, each with three 187-foot blades, have been blamed for ruining the viewshed of the Colorado Plateau, which offers glimpses of the La Plata, La Sal, San Miguel, and San Juan mountains in the distance.
The response from residents is mixed: Boyle said some find the sight of the turbines jarring and unpleasant, others think they are beautiful, a symbol of progress and change. But, he firmly stated, there’s no denying the financial boost the park provides a fledging economy, well past its heyday of uranium mining in the 1950s.
“At a time of decreasing oil and gas, the collapse of uranium and coal – the only bright spot on the economic horizon seems to be this wind farm,” Boyle said.
Indeed, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said the wind farm alone injects about $1 million in taxes annually, of which 66 percent goes to schools, with the remainder split between the county and city.
During construction, more than 100 workers filled local businesses. sPower donated $250,000 to the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education.
Now, sPower employs 10 full-time staffers to maintain the wind farm. And all this, Adams said, is set to last for at least the remainder of sPower’s 20-year lease.
“The wind farm’s contribution is significant,” Adams said. “And it benefits not only the residents, but also the children.”
Chris Giangreco, development director for the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, a nonprofit that provides place-based outdoor education, said the school will use the turbines as a tool to educate the community about alternative energies.
“San Juan County has been historically an economy based on extraction, but that has dried up,” Giangreco said. “This is a new opportunity to look at the potential new industry for the county.”
Solar for Southwest Colorado?As rural, conservative communities fall into a depressed economy, it’s not surprising local officials embrace renewable energies, said Dan Olson, executive director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
“There’s a really good economic story behind these projects, in terms of the benefits it has for county coffers,” Olson said.
In La Plata and Montezuma counties, where solar potential trumps wind, commissioners took a tour last year of the massive Alamosa Solar Generating Plant – the largest in the world when it was completed in 2012 – in the San Luis Valley.
The plant turned a plot of dry land generating $300 a year in property taxes into a nearly $1 million jolt for Alamosa County.
“We want to do the same thing,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla. “We need to diversify so we’re not holding all our eggs in one basket.”
Suckla said with Montezuma County’s infrastructure in place, a lax permitting process and a partnership with neighboring La Plata County the project is enticing. However, he said no contractors have expressed interest.
“We just haven’t had any takers yet,” Suckla said.
New energy but old values?Still, for the 2,000 or so residents in Monticello, the wind farm hovers above town as a marker that highlights the conflict of Old and New West ideals. All agreed, if begrudgingly, that the wind farm is a sound investment. Yet with the turbines imposing presence both physically and symbolically, the landscape as well as the town have changed.
Stiles argued the turn to alternative energy is not so much the old guard embracing change, as it is a deep-seated belief in property ownership and the right to turn that land into a profit.
“Almost all of the property owners ... are oldtime Utahns, many with a family history in San Juan County that dates back more than a century,” Stiles wrote. “In the end, their commitment to free enterprise and the unfettered economy ... trumps their small town rural values every time.
“The 21st Century is making for some strange bedfellows in the once Rural West.”