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Renewable energy projects forge ahead in Wyoming despite pandemic
RENEWABLE ENERGY

Renewable energy projects forge ahead in Wyoming despite pandemic

Solar, wind energy struggle as coronavirus takes toll

A wind turbine stands against stormy skies at the Reading Wind Facility in Reading, Kan., on April 27. Though some wind projects across the nation have been interrupted by the pandemic, most in Wyoming remain on track.

Renewable energy sources have contributed to more of the nation’s electricity supply than coal this spring, despite a national slowdown in electricity demand, according to new data analyzed by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Low-cost and readily available wind, solar and hydropower energy supplied more electricity to the market than coal for the entire month of April, according to the energy transition think tank.

Coal-fired power appears to have taken the biggest hit among electricity suppliers during the pandemic, making up just 15 percent of the nation’s electricity share on certain days last month. Renewable energy contributions have been largely unaffected by the pandemic due in part to the sources’ low cost and immediate availability when electricity demand wanes.

“The wind is out there, and it’s always one of the first (types of energy) to dispatch, because there are no marginal costs of producing it,” explained Jonathan Naughton, a leading wind energy scientist at the University of Wyoming. Despite renewable energy sources taking the lead in the electricity sector this spring, several new wind and solar projects appear to be battling with delays fueled by the virus too, as obtaining necessary permits or supplies has become more difficult. But Wyoming wind projects appear to still be on track this year, despite the historic economic upheaval in recent months.

A look at Wyoming wind projects

As the state’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power owns about a dozen wind projects in Wyoming and has several power purchase agreements with companies overseeing a number of additional wind farms in the state, according to its most recent integrated resource plan. And Rocky Mountain Powers’s Energy Vision 2020 — a $3.1 billion renewable energy initiative launched in 2017 — is still on track to be completed by the end of the year, according to Spencer Hall, the utility’s spokesman.

“Despite pressure on project timelines due to COVID-19, Rocky Mountain Power plans to complete the Energy Vision 2020 projects by the end of this year,” Hall told the Star-Tribune.

Several wind projects — TB Flats I and II, Ekola Flats and Cedar Springs — will come into service by the end of the year, equipping the state with an additional 1,150 megawatts in wind generation capacity. Recently, Rocky Mountain Power also fully acquired the state’s first wind facility, Foot Creek in Carbon County, as part of its plan to increase the site’s power capacity by 60 percent. The company’s repowering projects at Dunlap and Foot Creek I facilities are still set to be wrapped up by December too.

The utility’s enormous undertaking to retrofit Wyoming with state-of-the-art wind power and build necessary transmission lines is currently employing 900 workers, according to Hall.

While it’s a feat to build a wind power facility, it’s another challenge entirely to have the necessary infrastructure to transport the electricity to ratepayers. Rocky Mountain Power is continuing to upgrade a segment of its Gateway West transmission line in Wyoming this year, which will export wind generated electricity across the utility’s multi-state service territory.

On its 500 kilovolt Aeolus-to-Bridger and Anticline Transmission project, “foundations are complete, all but 49 of the 551 structures are erected, and 50 of the 140 miles of conductor is strung,” Hall said. “The substations are on track and we are preparing to have the Aeolus 230 kilovolt substation yard energized by June 15.”

Meanwhile, the independent power firm, Power Company of Wyoming, is forging ahead with bolstering Wyoming’s wind energy capacity too.

The development of the massive 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project is still chugging along this year. Construction on the wind farm in Carbon County restarted on April 21 (after a pause to wait for proper soil conditions).

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm will eventually funnel power into a new transmission line, called the TransWest Express Transmission Project. The transmission line will be a 730-mile line capable of delivering power generated from wind farms in Wyoming to customers throughout the Western grid. The transmission line will snake through four states and 14 counties. The project’s northern terminal and about 92 miles of the line will be built in Wyoming.

TransWest Express LLC has obtained all necessary state and county permitting and has right-of-way acquisitions secured for 92 percent of the route, according to Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for the transmission line project. The project owners hopes to complete all remaining regulatory requirements in 2021. If that happens, construction on Wyoming’s first independent and interstate transmission project in decades could likely begin in late 2021. The transmission line is estimated to pump $1 billion of investment into Wyoming.

“This means big property tax investments that provide a new but predictable (i.e. not boom and bust), and diverse (i.e. non-mineral) tax revenues for Carbon County,” Choquette noted. The Industrial Siting Council has granted $8.44 million in impact assistance for affected communities. Of that, $3.1 million goes to Carbon County and some additional municipalities. The rest of the assistance goes to Sweetwater County and the town of Wamsutter.

Unlike a rate-regulated, utility-owned transmission line project, TransWest Express is not limited to a specific service territory. The line will eventually export Wyoming electricity to new customers beyond the confines of a specified area on the power grid. Though, there is no guaranteed right-of-return for an independent company.

“What we are doing as an independent transmission developer is looking to expand the market to Wyoming,” Choquette said. “That’s what TransWest will do: It will open up new markets for Wyoming electricity resources.”

Big picture

In Wyoming and beyond, the future may be bright for wind after the pandemic passes, multiple analysts forecast.

“The bigger question will be, how will wind come out of COVID-19 compared to other things?” asked Naughton, the UW scientist. “There, I am reading a lot of optimism.”

For the state of Wyoming, Naughton hopes more lawmakers start seeing wind development as a boon for Wyoming, with the potential to generate at least some desperately needed revenue.

“COVID-19 has shown how viable these sectors are,” he said. “And with the downturns in oil and coal in particular, maybe there is room to just move renewables forward.”

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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