Wyoming wind could power all of California at peak demand five times over, but allowing companies to develop wind fleets in the Cowboy State is a contentious topic.
Exchanging a scene of sagebrush on a pale horizon for a viewscape of turbine blades is considered a bad deal by many in the state. But Wyoming is also plodding through an economic valley, and the state’s key revenue drivers — coal, gas and oil — are each depressed. Talk of diversification enters every discussion on Wyoming economics. That dialogue frequently turns to wind energy, but more often than not those conversations leave a wake of uncertainty and frustration behind them.
Are the gales that blow through the state at 50 miles an hour an economic benefit in this time of trouble? Or is the development of wind a liability that blights the landscape and challenges an already troubled coal sector?
Those are some of the questions the University of Wyoming’s Jonathan Naughton wanted to address in a lecture series at University of Wyoming in Casper on Thursday. To a handful of students, the director of UW’s Wind Energy Research Center stressed that there are pros and cons to wind but that it represents an opportunity.
Wind development doesn’t please everyone in Wyoming, the professor said. There is something particularly irksome to the human ear when wind blades whoosh through the air. Others dislike the look of 100-meter turbines on the hills, and many argue that wind doesn’t offer the same payoff for development that a coal mine or drilling site does.
If Wyoming is going to continue developing its wind resources, it must be done with sensitivity to the downsides of wind farms, he said.
“We have a history of doing that, of balancing, and we don’t want to change that for wind,” he said.
But though there are fair disagreements about the benefits and disadvantages of wind farms, there are a number of myths about development that Naughton criticized.
The assumption that wind is a direct threat to coal or that slowing wind development in Wyoming would alleviate coal’s troubles is inaccurate, he said.
Wyoming exports the vast majority of its coal, as well as the electricity produced from its coal. Demand in other parts of the country, from Texas to Illinois, determines coal’s value, not Wyoming policies, Naughton said.
“We could shut down wind development tomorrow in Wyoming,” he said. “The Legislature just has to pass a couple of disincentives. But that’s not going to stop wind development. They are going to develop it in Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa. The only result of us shutting it down is we are not going to benefit.”
Wyoming is currently ranked 15th for wind capacity in the country, with almost 1,500 megawatts installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Texas has moved to the top of the list with more than 20,000 megawatts due to an all-of-the-above energy approach, while states like Iowa and Oklahoma have been on the wind development road for many years. Wyoming is ranked first for potential wind development. In short, the state has the best winds, Naughton said.
But though wind energy is growing nationwide, it hasn’t been a major contributor to the decline in coal, he said. Natural gas has eaten up coal’s share of flatlined electricity demand in the U.S. in recent years, not the influx of renewables.
Wind production has grown exponentially as the cost of developing onshore wind farms has fallen, but it still provides as little as 6 percent of power. Natural gas recently became the number one fuel source for electricity, at a little over 30 percent, narrowly beating out coal.
Wind power accounted for one-third of new energy added to the grid in the last seven years. But it will take decades to develop into a key contributor to the electricity mix, he said.
The University of Wyoming’s wind studies are taking off in the meantime, thanks to a number of grants from both industry and the Department of Energy. Despite political disagreements, students are looking at the economics of wind in Wyoming and the technology that is driving wind growth.
At the heart of the wind center’s research is building better wind fleets, understanding how wind moves and interacts with turbine blades and studying how the electricity grid will have to adapt to this new, intermittent source of power flowing onto the grid.
Wyoming will likely never take advantage of the full power of its wind, nor become one of the top contributors to the wind market, Naughton said. But it can be on the front lines, benefiting from a resource that is better in Wyoming than anywhere else in the country.