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A big proposed wind project in Idaho faces major local opposition

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

The Biden administration has set a goal to permit 25 gigawatts of renewable energy production on federal land by 2025. How much is that? Well, the Energy Department says it takes 333 wind turbines to make one gigawatt. In Idaho, there's a proposal for a big wind project on federal land that's facing significant local opposition. Boise State Public Radio's Rachel Cohen reports.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: The site of the proposed wind farm outside of Twin Falls is high desert, lots of sagebrush and cheatgrass with outcroppings of lava rock from extinct volcanoes. But local rancher John Arkoosh says there's plenty of good grazing for cattle.

JOHN ARKOOSH: This is bulbous blue grass. And there's all kinds of native species out here, too.

COHEN: Arkoosh is one of several ranchers who lease this land from the Federal Bureau of Land Management - the BLM - to raise cattle. A New York company, LS Power, wants to build one of the biggest wind farms in the country here, up to 400 wind turbines across 76,000 acres. The company says it can mitigate impacts to ranchers, but Arkoosh is skeptical.

ARKOOSH: There's seven different ranches that run on this allotment alone. My own - there's four generations, four families that depend on this area for our livelihood.

COHEN: This project, called Lava Ridge, is exactly the type the Biden administration says is needed to transition the country's energy supply away from fossil fuels in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The one gigawatt of power generated here could supply more than 300,000 homes.

DEB HAALAND: Already, permitted renewable energy projects on BLM-managed lands include more than 130 wind, solar and geothermal projects.

COHEN: Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland touted progress to Western governors late last year.

HAALAND: A sustainable, clean energy economy isn't just an idea. It's here. It's happening.

COHEN: But there's opposition to Lava Ridge. Recently, about 300 people gathered in an airplane hangar to let the BLM know their feelings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I mean, my God, did you grow up here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you care about what happens to us?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My God, I don't believe you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's why I'm here.

COHEN: And it's not just local ranchers who are fighting the wind farm.

KAREN MISAKO HIRAI OLEN: Just based on basic human rights, I have to oppose this.

COHEN: Karen Misako Hirai Olen was born near the site in what at the time was an incarceration camp where the U.S. government sent Japanese Americans during World War II. It's now a national historic site. 13,000 people were imprisoned there. Hirai Olen says the turbines nearby would fundamentally change the experience of going there and imagining the hardships of the incarcerated.

HIRAI OLEN: They wouldn't build this outside of Arlington National Cemetery. They wouldn't build this on the Washington Mall. And to me, this site is just as sacred.

COHEN: LS Power says it's open to moving the turbines further from the historic site. It says construction will pump $500 million into the local economy and generate $4 million a year in local taxes. Still, county commissioners oppose the wind farm, and the governor and other elected officials told the BLM it needs some big changes to win their support. Jungwoo Chun, a lecturer at MIT, studies opposition to renewable energy projects and says a temptation is to overlook local concerns for the greater good of solving the climate crisis.

JUNGWOO CHUN: I'm sure many of those people who are actually the policymakers probably weren't even aware that such local opposition could actually be detrimental to their plans.

COHEN: His research shows local pushback frequently delays or cancels projects or gets them tied up in lawsuits, so proponents need to take it seriously. A decision on this one is expected in the fall.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Cohen is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter for KUNC. She covers topics most important to the Western region. She spent five years at Boise State Public Radio, where she reported from Twin Falls and the Sun Valley area, and shared stories about the environment and public health.