The Albany County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to consider updates to the county’s commercial wind energy siting regulations during a meeting next week, and several University of Wyoming professors are supporting a recommendation aimed at preserving dark night skies.
Chip Kobulnicky, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, directed UW’s observatory program from 2007-16. UW’s research observatories include the Wyoming Infrared Observatory atop Jelm Mountain 32 miles southwest of Laramie and the Red Buttes Observatory, which is located about eight miles south of Laramie just off U.S. Highway 287.
“Those are both in use every clear night of the year,” he said.
Wyoming is a good location for astronomy research because of its high elevation, dry air, lack of clouds and dearth of large cities. Dry air is important because moisture absorbs infrared radiation.
“Faint astronomical objects are only visible if the night skies are dark and free from light pollution,” he said.
From atop Jelm, at an elevation of about 9,500 feet, one can see lights from Cheyenne, Fort Collins, and the Foote Creek Wind Energy Project near Arlington. Red lights atop the turbines blink on and off every few seconds.
“Light pollution is like flatulence — everyone prefers that their neighbor has none of it, or very little,” Kobulnicky joked.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires lights atop turbines in order to make them visible to aircraft, but the agency has approved technology known as aircraft detection lighting systems, which keep turbine tower lights off except when an aircraft is in the area.
Among the updates under consideration in the county’s regulations is a new requirement that wind projects include this technology.
“If each of them is lighted, that’s a lot of stray light in the direction of our observatories,” Kobulnicky said. “It’s light that’s being dumped into the sky, visible for airplanes to see, and therefore light that will be deleterious to astronomy.”
The county’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved a series of regulation updates during its November meeting, which will come before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. A public hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m., followed by the meeting.
Other new requirements include a noise study, at least $5 million in liability insurance for developers and routine compliance inspections. Albany County would be added as a beneficiary to bonds held by the state to cover reclamation expenses.
Kobulnicky said aircraft detection lighting systems were “a great solution” to the problem of light pollution from wind energy projects.
“They’re going to be off a vast majority of the time, and that’s the way we need it, and I think that’s the way most Wyoming citizens would prefer it,” he said.
Kobulnicky was joined in sending an email to the commission about the issue by professors Danny Dale, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Mike Brotherton, who currently directs the observatories program.
Brian Lovett, then-administrator of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Division, commented on the county’s draft regulations last fall, saying that all projects approved by the division since 2016 have required aircraft detection lighting systems.
The infrared observatory atop Jelm, which features a 2.3-meter telescope, was completed in 1977 at a cost of almost $2 million, with funding coming from the state of Wyoming and the National Science Foundation. The Red Buttes Observatory was built in 1994.
UW’s research observatories have allowed for the training of hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students during Kobulnicky’s tenure at UW and have brought in more than $10 million in grant funding. He said the number of applicants to the physics and astronomy program has doubled in the last six years.
“It’s of economic importance, scientific importance and importance in training students,” he said of the observatory program.
Scrutiny of the county’s regulations became a hot topic in early 2020, after Texas-based renewable energy company ConnectGen announced plans to build the 504-megawatt Rail Tie Wind Project south of Laramie. Federal, state and local permitting is now underway and expected to be completed this year, according to ConnectGen.