Wyo. wind could help Calif. meet goals at lower cost — NREL study

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014

A new federal study estimates that ratepayers in California could save as much as $1 billion a year in power generation costs to meet renewable energy goals if transmission lines are built that allow the Golden State to access wind-generated electricity from Wyoming.
The detailed economic study, conducted by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., and released this week, would seem to bolster ongoing federal efforts to build new transmission lines connecting vast wind resources in Wyoming to power-hungry load centers across the desert Southwest.The NREL study, sponsored by the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, also offers support for California regulators exploring regional options to meet an aggressive renewable portfolio standard goal of having all investor-owned utilities in the state generating 33 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. The state has debated using only in-state renewable sources to meet the standard, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has expressed skepticism about proposals to import renewable energy.

“If California is going to maintain its commitment to ambitious renewable energy procurement goals, it makes sense to cast a wide net to find the least-cost and most efficient sources of renewable energy,” said James Bushnell, an associate economics professor at the University of California, Davis.

Wyoming has some of the nation’s best wind power resources, according to NREL, which has estimated that wind power there has the potential to produce more than 550,000 megawatts — more than 110 times the state’s current electricity needs.

The American Wind Energy Association estimates that there are nearly 6,000 MW worth of pending wind power projects in the state. Among them is the massive 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project that the Bureau of Land Management has already approved in south-central Wyoming.

The problem is transporting the renewable-generated electricity to other states such as California.

The benefits of building a direct-current power line to tap into Wyoming’s wind resources have been documented before. A 2011 study by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council that was analyzed in the NREL study found that doing so would save California ratepayers about $640 million a year.

One major project already moving through the federal permitting process is the TransWest Express transmission line proposed by a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., which is also proposing to build the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project.

BLM last summer released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 725-mile-long TransWest Express project, which would carry as much as 3,000 MW of electricity — including wind-generated power from planned wind farms in Wyoming — from the south-central part of the Cowboy State across portions of Colorado and Utah to a substation in southern Nevada, where it could connect to California’s power grid (Greenwire, July 3, 2013).

The NREL study is clear that the benefits of connecting California to Wyoming wind projects outweigh the costs of the $3 billion TransWest Express and other proposed transmission projects, including the planned Zephyr line that would carry up to 3,000 MW of Wyoming wind to the Southwest.

Thus, Loyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, said in a statement that “it makes economic sense for California to obtain a portion of their renewable energy from Wyoming.”

“Wyoming has some of the best onshore wind in the United States,” Drain said. “This study quantifies the benefit of connecting the best wind in the West to the state with the largest demand for renewables in the West, thus the California-Wyoming connection.”

And again, the cost-benefit ratios come out in Wyoming’s favor due primarily to the fact that there is such a strong wind resource available there, according to NREL.

“Wyoming has some of the highest wind capacity factors in the U.S., so developing this resource could be economically attractive for Californians as they pursue more renewable resources for their energy mix,” said David Corbus, NREL’s laboratory program manager and one of the study’s authors, in a statement.

But “future renewable generation costs are important to the economic outcomes,” said David Hurlbut, an NREL senior policy analyst and study co-author, in a statement.

And when comparing the costs of Wyoming wind to various combinations of utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal produced in California, the NREL researchers found Wyoming wind more cost-efficient.

“Our scenarios suggest economic benefits exceed costs in the range of $2.3 billion to $9.5 billion over 50 years on a net present value basis,” Corbus said in his statement.