There’s a sweet spot for solar energy in Wyoming that peaks just outside of Rock Springs, a place where the clouds don’t stick around for long and the yearly average temperatures are much cooler than the solar fields of southern California or Arizona.
But while the windiest slopes of Wyoming have turbines perched in the sage brush to capture energy, there is only one utility scale solar farm operating in the state, Sweetwater Solar.
It’s not clear if that will change. Sweetwater Solar just went up west of Green River. Another farm, Sage Solar, has obtained a contract with a Wyoming utility, though it hasn’t been built.
Most recently, a North Carolina solar developer and operator approached Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain Power with a proposal for a 630 megawatt facility just outside of Kemmerer, northwest of Rock Springs. The Fossil Solar project is in the early stages of consideration but would connect to the utility’s system at the Naughton coal-fired power plant.
Whether other developers will follow these first solar pioneers in the state is not clear.
When it comes to renewables, Wyoming has been a location for wind developers while Utah experienced a boom in solar, said John Knight, chief development officer of Strata Solar, the Fossil Solar project’s developer.
For whatever reason, regulators in Utah had cleared a much better price for small developers than what was possible in Wyoming. And the wind in the Cowboy State is simply very good, he said.
The Fossil Solar project, or any solar project in the state, is competing against the cheap economics of wind generation, Knight said.
He said the economics of solar in Wyoming are still uncertain.
“It’s an early stage market. There’s not much happening for solar in Wyoming,” he said. “We think we can make it work.”
Wyoming does have good solar resources. A recent study from the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources noted that the state’s solar potential was comparable to a number of other popular solar states and had an advantage over hotter climates like the desert Southwest. Solar panels are more efficient in cooler weather.
Hot days in a place like Arizona drain power output, while cold weather in Wyoming would boost that energy output, according to the study. On the flip side, snow-covered panels would reduce some of the yearly gains over hot regions, the study notes.
Wind really took off in Wyoming around 2008 with a number of investments hitting right before the Great Recession hit. There were federal subsidies to help wind compete in the market, and the cost of new wind generation was not only falling but predicted to continue falling compared to other power sources.
Utilities like Rocky Mountain Power, predicting increased demand prior to the recession, started developing new generation. In some areas that meant natural gas fire. In Wyoming, it meant wind.
Now, though electricity has remained relatively flat, Rocky Mountain Power is building more wind and repowering the old fleet to take advantage of federal tax credits before the sunset. The company has argued that this new generation will not fall back on the customer base as a cost but as a benefit given the cheap resources.
The wind boom has also driven pushback politically, as some lawmakers in Wyoming have questioned the benefits that wind offers the state versus its downsides.
Solar, however, has largely been an individual’s game. Only in Jackson, where community solar is being explored, had large solar energy been considered in Wyoming before the Green River Sweetwater Solar farm went up last year.
The cost of solar generation now has reached a pivot point — the cost of the motors to turn the panels, the structures to hold them and the land leases to locate the farms are greater than the cost of the panels, said Bruce Parkinson, School of Energy Resources professor of chemistry at the University of Wyoming.
That means the focus of research now is not just bringing down the costs, as has been the case from some years, but in finding more and more efficiency in the science of solar energy, he said.
Going forward, political support in Wyoming, where many are loyal to fossil fuels, could be a factor in solar’s success here, Parkinson said.
“The issue in Wyoming is really the political will,” he said. “Everyone just wants coal even though that’s not coming back.”
Wind has been a lesson in how Wyoming responds to renewables. Concerns have been varied, from killing birds and raptors to impeding the wild viewshed of Wyoming to reclamation of steel towers driven into the prairies. Likewise, the first solar project in Green River raised concerns about wildlife, doubts that eventually shifted the project’s boundaries to avoid a migration route.
The economics of wind have also been questioned. As an industry, it does not offer as much in terms of jobs and revenue as the fossil fuel industries like coal and oil. The introduction of a tax on wind was meant to offset that. Then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal has said that he regrets not also considering a solar tax at the time, but wind was the pressing concern.
Solar’s contribution in terms of dollars would be similar to wind’s, though without the tax, Parkinson said. It’s big in terms of local tax revenue and a job’s impact is largely during installation and construction, he said.
But in the pushback against wind, some Wyomingites also began to take issue with the federal law that gives small renewable projects a leg up: PURPA.
Meant to help diversify the energy economy in the ‘70s, the laws guarantee that solar or wind projects under a certain megawatt threshold will have a buyer in the local utilities — whether the utility wants that power or not.
That deal frustrated opponents of some of Wyoming’s recent wind projects, as it meant the utility was taking on power that it potentially did not need and at a cost that is not publicly known.
The Fossil Solar project is pursuing a contract with Rocky Mountain Power via the PURPA provision, said Knight of Strata. But if that avenue is not possible or the utility would be interested in buying power outside of that deal, the company would still proceed, he said.
“I think in any industry you are going to have people that are just trying to make a quick dollar and people who are in it for the long haul trying to create long-term value,” Knight said. “We are in it for the long term.”
Rocky Mountain Power is completing a feasibility study on how much it would cost to connect Fossil Solar to its system. That will give Strata an idea of whether this is a viable project, Knight staid.
In any case, they are making a bet stepping into Wyoming, he said.
In Wyoming, that means testing the waters with one farm proposal on the western edge of the state’s solar sweet spot.