Massive Wyoming wind farm would ship green energy to California

A project would ship energy from a massive farm producing as much power as three nuclear reactors.

LOS ANGELES TIMESFebruary 16, 2014 

RAWLINS, Wyo. — A relentless wind howls day after day across this high desert, pouring through a low gap on the Continental Divide.

“This is one of the windiest places in the nation,” screams Bill Miller above the din of gusting air.

Miller, a wiry man who spent much of his career in the oil and gas business, is in charge of building a massive wind farm on a cattle ranch owned by Anschutz Corp.

It would be the largest wind generation facility in the nation, if not the world.

But not a single kilowatt would be consumed in Wyoming. Instead, it would feed a new 750-mile transmission line to the California grid, where the electricity would help California’s crusade against global warming, while much of Wyoming continues to rely on the fuel that is one of the big contributors to climate change: coal.

“The enviros look at us and wonder what we are all about,” Miller said. “We got into renewables because we think it is a good business.”

The Anschutz sales pitch is simple: Its power will be plentiful, reliable and cheap, not to mention green, just what California needs as it faces an era of escalating electricity prices.

But a green energy marriage between Wyoming and California would be a study in stark contrasts, a household of mixed-up politics.

Wyoming residents enjoy the cheapest electricity prices in the nation, thanks to low-cost power from coal-fired plants near vast surface mines in the Powder River Basin.

California, which has all but phased out coal power and has the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy laws, has close to the highest prices, according to U.S. Energy Department data. State law requires that one-third of the state’s power come from alternative energy by 2020.

Wyoming has no legal requirement for renewable energy, and the staff of Republican Gov. Matt Mead says such a mandate would be politically inconceivable in such a conservative stronghold. Wyoming recently became the first state to tax it.

Political differences, Wyoming officials say, should not get in the way of a good business deal.

Many in California favor buying locally generated, small-scale renewable power, saying it supports state jobs, avoids the environmental impacts of building high-voltage transmission systems, provides greater economic benefits and gives the state more direct control of its power grid.

But developers of the $8 billion wind farm here, scheduled to start construction next year, say they can generate and ship wind power to California more cheaply than the state can generate its own.

The wind is so strong and so consistent in Rawlins — even the mayor admits “it wears on people” — that Miller says the wind farm can deliver power across four states and still beat the price of California’s own renewable power projects by a wide margin. If Anschutz’s meteorological and engineering research is correct, the Rawlins wind farm will undercut the power prices from some California renewable energy installations by half.

“It is understandable that California wants to build their own generation facilities, but it makes a lot of sense for California rate payers to consider Wyoming power,” said Loyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. “We are not talking about Wyoming wins and California loses.”

Drain, formerly a Texas lawyer, has worked his charm on California officials, meeting with dozens of the state’s top regulators. But the idea of buying green energy from a state that burns coal is politically unpalatable for some California politicians, and many regulatory officials are suspicious about the idea.

After attending a conference on Wyoming wind power, Edward Randolph, energy division chief at the California Public Utilities Commission, observed, “All they wanted to talk about was selling coal power to the coastal states.”

Randolph wonders whether buying wind from a state that burns so much coal is really accomplishing the climate change goals California has set.

“If we are taking renewable power from Wyoming, while they burn coal, then you aren’t accomplishing very much,” said Severin Borenstein, a University of California, Berkeley expert on the California electricity market.

But Anschutz has played a careful political hand. The company has obtained labor agreements with major California unions, including those representing electrical workers and operating engineers, who hope to get skilled jobs building the wind farm and transmission lines. The company plans to negotiate sales agreements with California utilities after all of its regulatory hurdles are passed.

At the same time, state and private utility officials in California are worried about a potential consumer backlash against other green energy policies that may be pushing up electricity prices. Cheap power from Wyoming, they argue, could help offset coming price increases that also will likely result from the loss of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, the planned shutdown of other coastal power plants and likely increases in the cost of natural gas.

A study released recently by San Francisco-based Energy (plus) Environmental Economics, a respected consultant in renewable power, projected the cost of electricity in California will jump 27 percent over the next 15 years, not counting inflation.

The prognosis for higher prices is supported by experts at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University, though the state Public Utilities Commission said an internal study indicates that price hikes can be held to the rate of future inflation.

“It is incumbent for California to find the cheapest way to do this,” Ren Orans, founder of the San Francisco consulting company, said of the state’s renewable energy mandate. One way is to integrate renewable resources across the Western U.S., as far away as Wyoming and Colorado.

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