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Wind farm heads toward completion in Elbert County

Project will provide clean energy while bolstering finances of Elbert County

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The foundation is set for a project that will boost the economy and annually eliminate 1 million tons of carbon. The project that blows through the southeastern edge of Elbert County will be the largest wind farm in Colorado, and the largest single-phase in North America.

Workers expect to finish all 300 turbines this summer, and by the end of October, the behemoths will power about that same number of homes or businesses. The contractor responsible for installing the 250-foot modern windmills, MA Mortenson Co., has laid all of the foundations, and recently started on the turbines.

“All of the wind platforms have been poured, and they're in the process of creating the turbines,” said Michelle Aguayo, spokesperson for Xcel Energy. “The actual construction should be completed this summer.”

In the spring of 2016 executives with Xcel Energy and Vestas Wind Systems, the company behind the turbines, announced the project. Elbert County residents and commissioners showed great support, and in early 2017, the commissioners voted unanimously 3-0 for 190 turbines to be constructed across the county.

During the initial hearing, an unusually large crowd came out. One person spoke of his concern about the already dicey roadways becoming worse under the weight of construction vehicles and increased use.

Commissioner Chris Richardson said initially the dirt roads did worsen, but after a few months, Mortenson became familiar with them, and started buttressing their portions of the public roads with gravel.

“There were some hiccups with roads and increased traffic when construction first started, but were pretty rapidly taken care of,” Richardson said, mentioning also that out of Elbert's 1,200 miles of roadway, about 200 are paved. “We're keeping an eye on them, but they're probably in better shape than they've been in a long time.”

Xcel estimates that Elbert County will receive $2 million in annual tax benefits and landowner payments, and has already paid an upfront fee of $4.7 million in road impact and build permit fees. The county squirreled almost all of that money into savings for future expenses or in case of economic downturn.

“These are stability funds that we have not had for well over a decade,” Richardson said.

The county's economic growth vision is supported by bringing in economic activity; it balances out the residential property values, which fluctuate with housing cycles, meaning the county's ability to serve citizens fluctuates right alongside.

“The wind farm is a much more stable source of income,” Richardson said. “A better, more predictable source of income.”

Richardson welcomes the speedy completion of the substantial project that covers multiple counties.

“I know people who have built their own homes that have taken longer,” he laughed.

This project was the first major agenda topic for Commissioners Richardson, Danny Willcox and Grant Thayer, and they discussed it right after being sworn into office. Two years later they can see the final goal just six months away.

“It's actually kind of neat to see something come to fruition in what's really a short amount of time,” Richardson said, also recognizing the superb work of the county engineer.

The turbine blades are more than half the size of the structure itself, in other words, about two-thirds the size of the Statue of Liberty. Mortenson even enlisted the aid of a helicopter to string up conductor wire. About a quarter of Xcel's customers will be served via this $1 billion project.

Aside from Elbert's 72,000 acres, the two wind farms, dubbed Rush Creek I and Rush Creek II, also cover parts of Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Kit Carson and Lincoln counties, along a path chosen specifically for its breeziness. The project, which is the largest that Xcel Energy has put together, includes 83 miles of transmission line to power homes and businesses.

Project manager Jerry Kelly said, “I think we're doing great on our schedule and I'm very proud of the work we've done so far.”

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