In a recent study out of Texas, researchers predicted that the state could reduce its coal-generated electricity to 6 percent in under 20 years.
If the study’s proposals are even partly accurate, they would represent a turning of the tide in electricity generation — and perhaps not a welcome one in places like Wyoming, where coal production is central to the economy.
The Future of Clean Energy in ERCOT is a series on clean energy, and it was prepared by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, a group pushing for a move to renewables in Texas.
According to the study, there are a number of benefits to a diverse energy portfolio where renewables play the role of pinch-hitter with more stable sources of energy like natural gas. For one, such a move would make regulations like the Clean Power Plan irrelevant.
However, diversification might not be as reachable for some other regions. The U.S. still gets the majority of its electricity from coal and most of its coal from Wyoming.
Wyoming is not well-positioned to follow in the Lone Star State’s footsteps, being part of an electricity grid that includes 11 other states and having few large-scale solar projects on the books. Wyoming’s wind projects have some hurdles of their own.
Wyoming already produces far more energy than it consumes. The state’s transmission lines out of state are near capacity, experts say. Coal is shipped out via rail daily, while oil and gas lines pump those commodities across state borders.
Wyoming does, however, have wind — and lots of it.
For producers, renewable energy is more affordable than ever, according to the last Lazard study, which tracks the affordability and economic viability of renewable energy each year.
But the investment in wind plants is not cheap.
Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, a 10-year-old development of the Anschutz Corporation, is pushing through the final permitting for the first phase of its 1,000-turbine wind farm and transmission line in Carbon County.
Chokecherry has yet to seek out a buyer. The company chose to develop first, confident that the market will be there when the project is closer to completion.
The company is also responsible for the majority of the wind and transmission projects operating in the state. Wind has been a growing market for Rocky Mountain Power, which operates in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, and its parent company Pacificorp since the late 1990s as technology became more efficient, said David Eskelsen, a company spokesman.
Rocky Mountain Power started focusing on natural gas over coal in 2006, realizing that natural gas and wind were similarly expensive to produce.
Currently, renewables account for about 15 percent of the company’s generating capability.
The wind projects in Wyoming highlight an important piece of the larger electricity picture. Markets exist and renewables are cheaper, but challenges remain for building a fleet of renewable resources.
Ultimately, it will be the markets, permitting hurdles and costs that guide much of the investment in renewables, Eskelsen said.
A web of electricity
Electricity is instant. From the source to the customer, the energy generated from wind, coal or natural gas moves rapidly. As a result, electricity providers must anticipate the electricity demand to the minute. They do this by sharing power and operating together.
Wyoming is part of an 11-state group that includes part of Canada and Mexico called the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.
Texas is free of the benefits and restraints of a larger grid. Most of the state’s energy is governed by its own council, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
As there is no battery big enough to hold energy in reserve, the energy sources must be available to meet the changing demands every hour of every day, Eskelsen said.
Coal and natural gas are more flexible and can be burned to meet demand. Wind energy is available when the wind blows. Even if wind or solar are available, the traditional commodities are still necessary to fill in the gaps in the complex web of transmission that sends electricity across the region.
It’s an issue that those who study renewable growth are familiar with.
“Even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future,” according to the Lazard study. “Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.”
The study from Texas suggests doing just that, but the move is not simple or likely for places like Wyoming.