Developers look to share Wyo.’s bounty of wind

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 15, 2014

Wyoming’s Carbon County doesn’t offer much in the way of scenery. High and dry, the landscape rolls with hills and prairie grass, sparse lakes and mountain chains. Towns are few and small, and back roads spindle on for miles without any sign of habitation.

There are resources in abundance here, though. They just happen to be invisible.

In a unanimous vote this week, the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council approved construction of a massive wind farm to be sited in a 320,000-acre swath of Carbon County, just south of the towns of Rawlins and Sinclair. Once completed, the Chokecherry & Sierra Madre Wind Project will house 1,000 3-megawatt wind turbines, scattered over a checkerboard of private and federal land. It will be the largest wind farm in the United States.

The progress of the Chokecherry project illustrates not only the improving business case for wind energy, whose costs have plunged more than 90 percent since the 1980s, but also many of the challenges faced by the sector as it tries to grow its segment of the U.S. power market — because while Wyoming may have wind in abundance, it offers little in the way of demand.

“The fact is that the very best wind resources are located in sparsely populated regions of the country,” said Michael Goggin, director of research at the American Wind Energy Association. By coincidence, much of the “high quality” wind that developers crave — wind that blows during daylight hours, with little intermittency — is found in the middle of the country, where populations are spread thin.

And the problem extends to infrastructure. “Just by coincidence, this happens to be where we’ve drawn a dividing line between the Eastern and Western Interconnection [power grids],” he said. “For both of those power systems, the region is more or less the edge of the world.”

For developers looking to expand the sector in the coming years, he said, the work will be not only to catch the wind, but to carry it to market, as well.

When bigger is better

In the case of the Chokecherry project, Denver-based Anschutz Corp. is tackling both issues at once. While one subsidiary progresses on the wind farm, a second is working through the complex regulatory process to lay a long-distance transmission line between Wyoming and the American Southwest.

The target is power-hungry populations in Arizona, Southern California and Nevada, states whose higher power prices make wind energy competitive with more conventional resources.

Driving down the price of energy it produces is going to be key to Chokecherry’s competitive success, said Bill Miller, president and CEO of the Power Company of Wyoming, the Anschutz Corp. affiliate tackling the wind project. It’s also the reason the project is so large.

“The term ‘economies of scale’ explains itself,” he said. Unit costs go down as the size of the project increases, he said. And in Chokecherry’s case, access to nearby rail lines and a sufficient bulk of cargo mean the company can avoid moving most turbine components by truck.

“Wind hasn’t always been an inexpensive resource, but at this scale, we can compete with new build,” he said.

Power on the move

Larger scale means larger transmission, and in fact, Chokecherry sits at the junction of three major transmission lines: TransWest Express, Gateway South and Gateway West. The first is under development by Anschutz subsidiary TransWest Express LLC, but all could potentially carry power from the wind project to distant markets.

While moving energy over distance is nothing new — the Hoover Dam, for example, first began piping electricity to Los Angeles in 1936 — it’s rare, in large part because of the complexity of the permitting process.

“The permitting process for a project like this touches on for separate states and spans federal, state and private land,” said Miller. “It’s highly complex. New ground hasn’t broken on a project like this in 30 or 40 years.”

The necessity of new transmission is highlighted in the case of Texas, which leads the country in installed wind power capacity and is poised to add 7,500 MW of new generation over the next three years. That surge in development is propelled by a number of factors, including the state’s vast wind resources and the expiration of a key federal tax credit in 2013.

But it is made possible by the completion of the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, a vast transmission project geared specifically toward wind energy (ClimateWire, Feb. 25).

While this week’s vote by the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council is a milestone for Chokecherry, developers still have months of permitting ahead before they can break ground on the wind farm and still more to go on the Transwest transmission line.

“The big deals are done,” said Miller. “What’s left is fine-detail analysis.”