There is no shortage of Wyoming wind jokes. Google Wyoming wind, and you’ll likely stumble across an image of a “Wyoming windsock”: a length of iron chain on a post, with a sign explaining that, if said chain is cocked at a 75 degree angle, you ought to “beware of low-flying trains.”
This is perhaps sound advice for California these days, since Wyoming is now marketing its considerable wind power resources to the Golden State with the strength and stubbornness of one of those gales that sometimes knock semis off of I-80 as though they were no more substantial than paper cups.
On one hand, this makes perfect sense. With nearly 40 million people, California uses A LOT of power, about 259 terawatt-hours a year, “more than the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming combined,” according to ReWire. It also has an ambitious target of deriving 33 percent of that electricity from renewable sources by 2020, when it will represent the vast majority of the West’s renewable electricity market, especially since other states with similar targets are pretty much already on track to reach them, eliminating the policy incentive to invest in more. That means everyone and their mother who wants to build a renewable power plant wants in on the California market, regardless of where they’re planning to build. And Wyoming, of course, is a net exporter of energy, so it’s not going to find a big market for wind power at home, especially with no renewable portfolio requirement of its own.
There’s just one problem (okay, lots of problems actually, but we’re going to focus on this one). As HCN contributor Steve Ernst reported last summer, California would like to get most of its renewable power close to home, preferably from within its own borders, and its rules for what projects meet its renewable energy standards reflect that.
According to the L.A. Times, in an Aug. 2011 letter to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior advisor Michael Picker pointed out that bringing power from so far out of state might doesn’t make sense because, "Transmission lines proposed to stretch hundreds of miles over private and public lands face significant permitting and development risk.” Plus, “the governor and lawmakers may be more interested in creating construction jobs at California alternative energy projects than in accessing cheaper Wyoming wind power,” Frank Wolak, the director of Stanford University's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, pointed out to the Times. Meanwhile, the Denver Post reports, “The California Energy Commission projects that for the next 10 years out-of-state renewable energy will come from close-by Arizona, Nevada and the Northwest.” Not, notably, from Wyoming.
Interestingly, Wyoming boosters don’t seem much dissuaded by Brown et al.’s lack of enthusiasm. In fact, billionaire Phil Anschutz’s Power Company of Wyoming is trying to get California utilities to buy into what would be the largest wind power project in the nation – 1,000 turbines on 2,000 acres near Rawlins, about half of it public land, with a generating capacity of 3,000 megawatts, reports the Denver Post. To get that power to market, the project will rely on the 725-mile TransWest power line that will run from Wyoming to south of Las Vegas, where it would link into the California grid. That power line is on a sort of federal fast-track though when it will actually be completed is anybody’s guess.
And last week, Wyoming officials were out promoting a University of Wyoming study, which suggests that because the Cowboy State's wind blows at different times than California wind, and is often high during times of peak California demand, it could help balance the Golden State's wind power and save it over $100 million per year. "It's been the centerpiece of our outreach effort to California," Wyoming Infrastructure Authority executive director Loyd Drain told the Casper Star-Tribune. "We've met with over 40 key officials. The fact that they’re opening their doors and allowing us to share with them the results of this study means a lot."
The state’s energy developers hope, as do those in other states, that California’s isolationism will weaken as it encounters challenges filling its renewable energy dance card with partners from within its borders. Drain told the Star-Tribune in July that “he’s confident Wyoming can make its case by focusing on cost. While California wants to supply its own renewable energy, and could very well supply its own needs, it’s hobbled by its arduous project permitting process that boost(s) the cost of projects. ‘It’s ironic they have such stringent permitting and siting regulations,’ Drain said. ‘Sometimes (renewable facilities in California) have been literally impossible to build.’ ”
Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor