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Utility Takes Step Towards Influx Of Renewables

The rough map of Pacificorp's transmission expansion throughout the Mountain West
The rough map of Pacificorp's transmission expansion throughout the Mountain West

A large western utility with customers in 10 western states including Wyoming is preparing to make its largest request for new renewable energy ever. It's a step towards executing its October 2019 Integrated Resource Plan.

By July 20, Pacificorp is asking developers to submit project plans to help produce a combined 3743 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind throughout the West. It's also looking to develop 595 MW of battery storage capacity.

Spencer Hall, a spokesman for Pacificorp subsidiary Rocky Mountain Power, said the utility can't predetermine where new developments will be; that will depend on where the resource is best and the most cost-competitive.

"It makes for good opportunities with a broad geographic footprint. Places where there are good solar opportunities like in Utah, for example, and then places with really good wind opportunities, Idaho, Wyoming, even into Montana," he said.

Hall said this is an opportunity for developers to take advantage of the utility's new nearly 2000 mile-long multi-state transmission lines. For years, lack of transmission has stood as a significant barrier to increased wind development in the West.

"There's been a bit of a bottleneck and so, with some of the new transmission projects that we're doing, [we] can open up a lot of opportunities for these renewables projects," he said.

Hall said the COVID-19 pandemic has not interrupted any deadlines for them. In fact, he said Rocky Mountain Power currently has around 900 employees and contractors in Wyoming working on new wind development and upgrading older turbines.

As the pandemic draws down electricity demand, renewable projects have mostly kept on. For instance, NextEra's Cedar Springs Wind Project is preparing to hire hundreds of new employees in Converse County in the coming months.

Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, said it has been the status quo for renewable development unless a project is in its infancy. He said the headwinds facing other energy sources aren't as much as a factor for renewables.

"Obviously, oil has been hugely affected because the transportation industry is having a large downturn. Certainly electricity has had a downturn," he said. "But wind and solar are among the cheapest sources, and they dispatch first, often, at least in the competitive markets."

In other words, a utility often uses its renewable energy first when producing electricity given it's cheaper to produce than alternatives. Meanwhile, he said coal is often the last to dispatch.

In the first quarter of 2020, renewables produced more U.S. electricity than coal, according to an analysis by the Institute For Energy Economist and Financial Analysis.

Rocky Mountain Power's Hall said hiring for its projects won't start for years. The utility's same IRP plans to retire several Wyoming coal-fired power plant units early.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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