Wind Farm Powering A Million Homes Nears Approval Deep In Coal Country

CREDIT: flickr/Duke Energy

Pronghorn antelope graze on the prairie at Duke Energy's Campbell Hill Windpower Project near Casper, Wyoming.

A massive wind farm in Wyoming is getting closer to reality. Last week Wyoming’s Industrial Siting Council voted unanimously to approve a permit to construct and operate the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, which could eventually generate 3,000 megawatts of energy — enough to power nearly one million households. The $5 billion project, which could include up to 1,000 wind turbines, is being undertaken by Power Company of Wyoming. The Power Company is a wholly-owned affiliate of Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz’s The Anschutz Corp, which also has holdings in oil and gas infrastructure and electricity transmission.

The permit is the last major non-federal permit needed to move the project forward, however the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is still working on two environmental assessments to be released in the near future. This includes the issuance of rights-of-way grants. The company has also applied for an eagle take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which would allow the project to kill a certain number of raptors in exchange for implementing conservation measures.

The wind farm will be sited in south-central Wyoming’s Carbon County where it will sprawl across a 320,000-acre checkerboard of private land, state land, and federal land, but only occupy some 2,000 acres. The turbines stand 328-feet tall and have 200-foot-long blades. However, the energy from the project is anticipated to be exported to utility customers in California, Arizona, and Nevada — with none of it remaining in Wyoming. The company is still negotiating power purchase agreements with utilities.

“It is the utilities in the Desert Southwest — Southern California, Arizona and Nevada — with densely populated areas and high Renewable Portfolio Standards that will be buying the power,” Kara Choquette, communications director for Power Company of Wyoming, told ThinkProgress.

Choquette said the project site directly aligns with major transmission lines under development, such as Energy Gateway West and Energy Gateway South, which will bring power to neighboring western states. The TransWest Express Transmission Project, which is being developed by Power Company of Wyoming affiliate and Anschutz Corp-owned TransWest Express LLC, is another option. These transmission lines are expensive and time-intensive to construct and not having power purchase agreements in place can make it harder for them to get built.

Wyoming currently gets its energy from fossil fuel projects, mostly coal. While states like California have implemented ambitious Renewable Energy Portfolios, it can seem to go against the principle of these guidelines to get clean energy from coal-driven states that themselves have no emissions reductions plans. For this reason some in these western states advocate developing homegrown renewable energy from geothermal, hydropower, and solar rather than stocking up on wind from less environmentally-friendly states.

Wyoming recently joined 11 other states in suing the EPA over its proposed carbon rules. Under the proposed rules, Wyoming would have to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by about one-quarter by 2030. Given the flexibility of the program, Wyoming could easily shift some of the generation from coal to wind if pushback by special interests from the coal industry and coal-supporting groups like the American Legislative Executive Council could be overcome.

“The wild card of the EPA regulations won’t be removed from the deck anytime soon,” wrote the editorial board of the Casper Star-Tribune recently. “But Wyoming need not worry about folding because it could hold and play a trump card consisting of wind energy and “clean coal” technology innovation and implementation, including carbon capture and sequestration.”

While the Star-Tribune agrees with the state’s decision to sue the EPA, it recommends also opening a second front that can act to “accelerate the examination and testing of hybrid power plants to help maintain our production capacity by combining the power of the state’s numerous sources of energy.”

This would seem to be a tepid endorsement of wind energy that makes sure to stay out of the purview of big coal’s ambitions. Wyoming produced 39 percent of all coal mined in the United States in 2012, and provided coal to 34 different states. So the established industry would rather see more rail lines than transmission lines built.

According to the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) recent second quarter market report, there are now 61,946 megawatts of installed wind capacity in the United States and over 46,300 wind turbines. During the first half of 2014, 835 megawatts of wind energy were installed, however 14,600 megawatts of wind capacity is under construction across 106 projects in 21 states as of the end of June.