January 3, 2018 Read More →

Economics Drive Decisions to Ramp Up Wind Power in Wyoming

Christian Science Monitor:

It’s a sunny day in early November in southern Wyoming, but the wind is blowing so hard that opening a car door is a chore. Signs on the interstate warn of gusts topping 70 miles per hour, and semi trucks have pulled over all along I-80. It’s difficult to hear a word Bill Miller says as he steps out of his truck at the top of a rise on the Overland Trail Ranch to describe the development taking place on the expanse below him.

Of course, that fierce wind is exactly what makes this pocket of the West so desirable for that development. The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project is slated to become the largest wind farm in the United States once it’s up and running. And it’s causing some in Wyoming – a state whose economy has been devastated by the decline of its bedrock fossil fuel industries – to rethink their attitude toward renewable energy.

The 3,000-megawatt project near Rawlins is emblematic of a growing industry that is hitting its stride, and is fueled less by ideology than by economics. Gone are the days when wind power advocacy fell exclusively to liberals and environmental advocates. As the economics of wind power have become more viable, many staunch conservatives have come to view the industry as a fiscally responsible component of a diverse energy future. The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is bankrolled by Philip Anschutz, a Denver billionaire who made much of his fortune in the fossil fuel industry, is a major Republican donor, and is hardly a poster child for renewable-energy idealism.

“We’re in the resource business,” says Mr. Miller, a native Wyomingite with a trim grey beard who grew up on a ranch and has worked for The Anschutz Corporation for 37 years, mostly on oil and gas projects. He now runs both the Power Company of Wyoming and the TransWest Express Transmission Project, the two Anschutz subsidiaries behind the wind farm and the transmission line that will carry its electricity from the expanses of Wyoming to urban California and the desert Southwest. “I try to ignore the political, ignore the policy, and think about it from an economic point of view.” 

Anschutz already owned the 500-square-mile working cattle ranch where the new wind farm is being built, and as Miller drives its bumpy roads, up to a plateau overlooking the site, with Elk Mountain rising in the distance, he points to the primary reason this project made sense: “This is, without exception, the best wind resource anywhere in the US.”

For a state with such strong winds, Wyoming has actually been slow to enter the wind market. That honor goes to the Plains states like Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Many of those states – which are generally conservative, and supported Donald Trump in 2016 – generate a significant portion of their power from wind.

When Kansas legislators voted two years ago to do away with its renewable portfolio standard mandating that 20 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, it was largely a symbolic action; more than 20 percent of Kansas’s power already came from wind energy by 2014. Today, about 30 percent of its electricity generation comes from wind.

“A combination of the [federal] tax credit and improving technology has made wind very cost effective,” says John Nielsen, clean energy program director at Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo. One of the biggest barriers to development has been a lack of transmission and an antiquated grid system, but Mr. Nielsen and others say that once there’s more regional connectivity, wind can become an even larger player.

One key driver for the spike in wind has been the growing demand from companies and states looking for cleaner energy and climate solutions. That ideologically driven investment has propelled the industry toward an economy of scale that appeals to fiscal conservatives.

“In a lot of these more conservative states the driver is the economics,” says Nielsen. “Ten years ago, the barrier to renewables was that they were more costly. Now, the barrier to really large-scale penetration is the existing system, that it’s not as flexible as it could be to integrate these resources.”

More:  Why coal-rich Wyoming is investing big in wind power

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