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Wind Energy Capacity To More Than Double In Wyoming After Years Of Stagnancy

Cooper McKim
Laine Anderson standing under the first re-powered turbine at the Seven Mile Hill Wind Farm in Carbon County.

On a vast swath of prairie lined with 79 wind turbines, new blades are delivered on the backs of 18-wheelers. Laine Anderson navigates the snow-packed service roads. He oversees wind operations at Rocky Mountain Power, an operating entity of Pacificorp. Anderson parks under a massive turbine.

"We're at Seven Mile 409. This is our first test turbine for re-powering," he said.

This whole Seven Mile Hill wind farm will be re-powered. That's when new equipment allows the same turbines to produce more energy. New cells, hubs, and blades lying around the site will soon increase production by 20 percent, according to Anderson.

It's not the company's only project, either. Rocky Mountain Power is developing four new wind farms in Wyoming to be finished by 2021. Anderson points to one new site in the distance. It takes a second to make out the white sticks.

"Our Dunlap wind site is over there in the distance. Over there at Dunlap, TB 1 and TB 2 will be on the north and south side of that wind plant, and Ekola will be right in between these," Anderson said.

Credit Data Collected From Department of Environmental Quality/Synthesized by Cooper McKim
All the permitted, and near-permitted (Cedar Springs), wind projects to be developed in the short-term.

With these four projects, plus three more from other entities, the state's existing wind energy capacity will be more than doubled. Six other states are also on pace to double capacity, including Arkansas, New Mexico and Maryland, according to the American Wind Energy Association. This is just the latest push of what's been an upward trend in the past few decades for wind. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind was less than one percent of total generation across the country in 2009. Now it's more than five times that.

Robert McCullough, head of energy consulting firm McCullough Research, said the reason for all this growth is low costs.

"It's much easier to buy power on the open market than maintain an elderly coal unit. We're seeing that all over the United States," he said.

A report from Lazard, a financial advisory firm, shows the cost of producing wind has gone down by nearly 70 percent in 9 years — sitting at prices dramatically below coal.

Low prices are pushed even lower thanks to a federal tax credit that's set to end by 2020. Uday Varadarajan, principal at Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit focused on clean energy, said, "there are a lot of other states that are trying to figure out a way to put as much wind on the ground as they can."

Chris Petrie, Chief Counsel at the Wyoming Public Service Commission, said the tax incentivize makes wind suddenly irresistible.

"If there's a tax incentive like that, that puts a spin on the economic calculation." He said, "You can attribute the timing of some of this construction to the time limits involved in the federal tax credits."

With more and more demand from states with renewable standards and declining costs, he said it's hard for states like Wyoming to avoid new projects. Thirty eight states plus Washington D.C. have a renewable portfolio standard, plus Alaska though it's not codified. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory attributes half of all renewable growth (both capacity and generation) in the country since 2000 to these standards. And in the mountain west, the Gateway West Transmission Line Project is allowing energy produced here to be exported to demanding markets.

"The questions is do you want to take that opportunity or not, and if you don't, it's getting harder and harder to say that you don't want that money from the people who want to buy your wind," Varadarajan said.

Wyoming hasn't been eager to embrace wind. If you live here, you know it's windy - the state has the 7th highest wind capacity potential in the country, but it sits at 15th in installed capacity according to the Department of Energy. And until this surge, growth has been stagnant for years. 

Credit Data U.S. Energy Information Administration/Synthesized by Cooper McKim
Wyoming Wind Power Capability from 2008 - 2016 - set to jump up over 6000 MW with near-term projects.

One wind developer says it's not easy to do business in the state. Intermountain Wind's Paul Martin said that's due to lack of transmission, public opposition, long permitting times, and a tax on wind - which only one other state has. Varadarajan further explained the challenge.

"I think Wyoming, more so than many of the states surrounding it, has not necessarily been a friendly place for wind to develop," he said.

Gillette Senator Michael Von Flatern said he has seen a lack of support at the state level. He attributed it to the feeling that wind energy is supplanting other state industries like coal, as well as the visual impact on the landscape. But with such good prices and coal on the decline, he said it's a path legislators will have to face.

"You know our customers demand it. We have to comply in some manner, we can't stick our head in the sand. We can't 'say you'll take coal or you'll take nothing,'" Von Flatern said.

With less money coming from coal revenues, a group of legislators is motivated to pull more income out of wind. Lander Senator Cale Case is a leader among them.

"We need to have a tax structure that matches the extreme long-term impacts on the view sheds and the environment and wildlife, everything," he said.

Impacts like noise pollution, interrupting the view, and threats to birds and bats. A 2013 Biological Conservation study reported turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds a year in North America. The landscape impact is also a major concern of Von Flatern.

"I just don't like the fact you pretty much can't film a movie in this state, an old western, without a wind generator or turbine being in the picture. To me, that's not correct," he said.

Case said now is the time to raise Wyoming's wind tax from $1 megawatt/hour to $5 mw/hr. He said legislators support the increase for differing reasons: some to improve regulation, others because of a distaste for wind, but that's not him.

Another common concern around wind is its reliability or lack thereof. It's often repeated by President Donald Trump.

"When the wind doesn't blow, I said, 'What happens when the wind doesn't blow?' Well, then we have a problem," he said August 13th this summer at a fundraiser in Utica, NY.

It's also a limiting factor for utilities, according to Chris Petrie with the Wyoming Public Service Commission. Unlike thermal energy like coal, power from wind can't be turned off or on at will. Even with a flood of new renewable energy to the grid, back up energy is still required, he says.

"Those limits are to an extent, those are moving targets," he said. " Operating the grid is a fabulously complicated thing."

Credit Cooper McKim
If you look towards the horizon, you'll notice several wind farms in the area.

Back at the Seven Mile Hill Wind Farm, Laine Anderson and Rocky Mountain Power do see Wyoming as a home to world-class wind. And that's not going away.

"I believe the renewable resources will be moving into Wyoming a little more readily in the years to come," he said.

The bill to raise the wind tax is expected to come in January's legislative session.

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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