Wyoming Has The Wind, But Powerlines Hinder Development
Wyoming wind is indeed legendary. The University of Wyoming's Wind Energy Research Center claims the state has the best land-based class 6 and 7 wind sites, a categorization based on wind speed and power generation. But according to the American Wind Energy Association, Wyoming ranks just 14th in installed wind capacity.
The proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project could change that. In August, Wyoming issued the last necessary state permit, and if the wind farm gets federal approval, it will be the biggest in the country with 1,000 turbines that could generate up to 3,000 megawatts of energy.
For now this is all hypothetical, because the transmission capabilities that the Chokecherry project requires just don't exist.
University of Wyoming professor Rob Godby compared the problem to real estate noting, "In Wyoming, we have a great house and a relatively poor location."
In his metaphor, the house is the wind power generating capacity; a poor location in that Wyoming is really far from the states that could use its wind energy.
"And in order to overcome that location, we need to build transmission line and those are expensive," Godby said.
$3 billion is the projected cost of TransWest Express, the transmission line that would carry some of Chokecherry's power 725 miles to a station in Nevada. Both projects are backed by The Anschutz Corporation, a Denver-based energy conglomerate. In order to build transmission, Anschutz and other developers will have to cut through a lot of private land.
That includes ranches, like the one Niels Hansen owns near Rawlins, Wyoming. He drove me up over a fiery-red butte to get better look at the land where Utah-based Rocky Mountain Power plans to build a long distance transmission line called Gateway West.
He's been fighting it ever since the first letter arrived in the mail.
"I wrote back and said 'you're not welcome one our property. Stay off until you give me specifics of where you want to go and what you wanna do,'" Hansen said.
A few years later, Hansen has now worked out some of his concerns with Rocky Mountain Power and Wyoming's Bureau of Land Management. But communicating through these public meetings was not easy.
"You can't have a meaningful conversation with anybody and get any real details or express your concern in detail," Hansen said. "To get involved in the meetings that Gateway was having with the (Bureau of Land Management) for example, it was really tough to crack in there so I had a seat at the table, so I could participate in those conversations and put concerns on the table and get these issues out there so it can be discussed."
Private landowners aren't the only barriers to companies trying to build long distance transmission. In the case of TransWest, two-thirds of the land it will cross is federally owned. Beverly Gorny, with the Wyoming office of the Bureau of Land Management, explains the permitting process, but also notes they aren't the only entity transmission builders have to deal with.
"Once the record of decision is issued, we grant a right of way, and then there is a notice to proceed that actually allows them to break ground," Gorny said.
On the state level there is also Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and maybe even counties.
"They have many, many i's to dot and t's to cross before they can actually break ground," Gorny explained.
So, why on earth would anyone want to get into the costly, complicated business of wind generation and transmission?
Rob Godby of the University of Wyoming said the combination of the EPA's proposed emission standards, and the growing number of states that require a percentage of their energy come from renewables makes for a strong bet.
"The business case is to bring renewable energy from Wyoming where there is a very good resource and take it to the largest power market in the western grid which is California," Godby said. "But like anything else, that remains to be seen, so it is a gamble."
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.