Wind Power Catches a Mountain Breeze

3 minute read

The story of Carbon County, Wyoming, can be told in its name. The 8,000-sq.-mi. jurisdiction first appeared on the map–figuratively and literally–in the 1860s along with the development of its vast coal reserve. That energy source, the black gold of the 19th century, defined the region’s economy for more than 100 years.

Now, Carbon County is vying for a place at the forefront of America’s growing clean-power economy. Years after the last coal mine closed, the area’s new energy entrepreneurs see opportunity not down in the ground but up in the air, where they are trying to turn the Cowboy State into a key supplier of wind power for the West Coast.

The demand is rooted in a series of legally binding renewable-energy targets adopted by California, Oregon and Washington State. In California, which set the most aggressive goals, 33% of the state’s power must come from sources such as wind and solar by 2020, and 50% by 2030. Those sources currently account for around 27%, and California doesn’t produce enough of its own clean energy to keep pace—-let alone meet its ambitious timeline.

That gap between need and supply has set off an arms race in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho—-all states with lots of wind and relatively little infrastructure to capture it. “It blows more often in Wyoming than it does in most any other part of the Western U.S.,” says Stefan Bird, CEO of Pacific Power, a West Coast utility whose parent company plans to build a major wind farm in Wyoming. “It’s the least cost renewable we can add to our system by far.”

Despite enormous potential, wind-power development in the Western mountain states has lagged behind other parts of the nation. The sparsely populated states don’t need more electricity, and the excess power didn’t have anywhere to go. But that’s changing fast, as demand for wind power increases around the country and technological advances make it cheaper and easier to transmit.

The biggest strides are being made in Wyoming, where two companies are racing to build massive wind farms to supply the West Coast. In Carbon County, the Power Company of Wyoming has broken ground on what will be the largest wind-power installation in the country. The completed project, which is projected to create 1,000 local jobs, calls for 1,000 wind turbines generating enough energy to power nearly a million homes. That power will travel 730 miles to California through a direct current transmission line built by an affiliate. “Wyoming has some of the best wind-energy resources in the world,” then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in 2012, when the federal government approved the Carbon County farm. “There’s no doubt that this project has the potential to be a landmark example.”

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Pacific Power, has also jumped on the Wyoming bandwagon, pumping billions into developing its own wind-power farm and transmission lines. That project aims to bring more than a gigawatt of wind power to the West–enough to power 750,000 homes.

The key to all of these projects is getting the power from its source to its users. As the U.S. increases its reliance on clean energy, the ability to move it from one part of the country to another will be critical. “If there is transmission available,” says Alex Morgan, a wind analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “wind projects pop up around it.”

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