Wind turbines in Shirley Basin

Wind turbines face into the wind near Medicine Bow on Jan. 19, 2016. 

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project reached a milestone recently on its way to establishing a 1,000-turbine wind farm in the plains of southern Wyoming.

Federal regulators approved transmission lines that will carry the electricity generated at Chokecherry across state lines.

It was a celebrated moment for the developer and wind energy proponents in the state.

Around the same time, the industry itself also reached a milestone. In some regions of the country, wind is now cost-competitive with natural gas, which is one of the cheapest and most reliable electricity fuel sources in the U.S, according to the closely watched annual Lazard study, published Dec. 15.

Renewable energy projects have become an increasingly viable way to meet electricity demand in the United States and are rapidly encroaching on the domain of coal and natural gas. But renewables are not a replacement — rather, they are an increasingly cheaper and cleaner addition to a diverse portfolio, experts say.

“Our studies continue to demonstrate that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in energy generation or storage,” said George Bilicic, the vice chairman of Lazard’s Power, Energy & Infrastructure Group. “The demands of a developed economy will continue to require both traditional and alternative energy sources as the technologies driving renewable energy evolve.”

For a decade, the financial firm Lazard has capped each year by releasing an investigation into developing technologies that affect the cost of providing electricity, with a particular focus on how renewables fit into the picture.

This year, the low cost of wind surpassed natural gas in some scenarios. Thanks to advancing technologies, everything from turbine blades to battery storage is cheaper and more efficient, according to the study.

The study estimated that land-based wind costs are between $32 and $62 per megawatt hour, compared with a combined-cycle natural gas plant, which would cost between $48 and $78 per megawatt hour.

Though wind still accounts for only 5 percent of the electricity generation in the U.S., lower costs have allowed wind farms to multiply in recent years. According to Wind Vision, a Department of Energy report from 2015, wind-generated electricity could feasibly double by 2020, growing to 20 percent of the U.S. electricity market by 2030, said Hannah Hunt, senior analyst for the American Wind Energy Association.

There are a number of benefits to the declining cost of wind energy, she said. There are about 88,000 jobs in the sector, Hunt said.

But one aspect of developing wind energy not addressed in the cost analysis is transmission, and it’s also one of the most expensive and time-consuming parts, experts say.

Anschutz has spent more than $100 million and 10 years developing and permitting Chokecherry and its transmission lines so far, but it has yet to raise a single turbine to harness the gales of southern Wyoming.

Another hurdle for developers of large-scale renewable projects is storage. Wind doesn’t blow according to demand.

But the issue of storage is sometimes exaggerated, said Hunt, of the Wind Association. Often, storage capacity is not even tapped, as technologies that anticipate supply and demand on electricity grids are so fine-tuned that the intermittent nature of wind energy is negligible.

At this point, as the leader of the Lazard study said, wind generation is part of a larger network. It works with other energy sources.

Advances in the electricity storage sector vary by region and use, according to the study. However, that too is expected to change, said Jonathan Mir, leader of Lazard’s North American Power Group.

Costs in storage are expected to drop as technology advances, further boosting the use of renewables, he said.

Wind farms now dot almost every state, Hunt said, with about 98 percent on private land. Wind cost has fallen by two-thirds in recent years, and rural areas in particular are benefiting.

“We have a great story here,” she said. “And it shows that wind energy is one of the most competitive sources of energy, translating to lower electricity costs at the end of the day.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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