Wyoming wind on the long trail west

UNITED STATES: Two large-scale transmission projects are aiming to connect the power from the excellent wind resources of Wyoming, the US's least populous state, to the needs of California, the most populous, where there is a huge requirement for renewables-generated electricity.

Proposed lines run over 1,000 kilometres through five states

Two major private transmission lines are proposed to move wind power from windy Wyoming (population 583,000) to power-hungry California (population 38.3 million). TransWest Express (TWE) and Zephyr are each backed by a tenacious company with deep pockets. But it is unclear if both of the high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) lines will be built because of the inherent risk of such multi-billion-dollar projects and the politics of California importing electricity.

The more advanced of the two is TWE, which would ship 3GW of wind power from Wyoming, across Colorado, Utah and Nevada to an interconnection near Las Vegas to help power the Los Angeles area and other south-western desert areas. First proposed in 2005, the $3 billion project is well into the development process.

TransWest Express, backed by Colorado-based conglomerate the Anschutz Corporation, is aiming for the project to be completed before 2020, when California's renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requires the state's major utilities to source 33% of their electricity from renewable sources. Crucially, the 3GW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project in Wyoming, which was consented in August and is set to start construction by the end of the year, is also backed by Anschutz, headed by conservative Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. The transmission and wind projects are not dependent upon each other, insists TWE, but they are obviously complementary.

The next few months are vital. Two thirds of the entire 725-mile (1,167 kilometres) overhead line would be on federal or public land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), the lead federal agencies for consenting the project, are expected to release the final environmental impact statement in the first quarter of 2015. The report is expected to green-light the project - as the draft report did - and will determine the exact route.

WAPA, part of the US Department of Energy (DOE), is a joint development partner. The government agency, which markets and transmits federally-produced hydro power, and TWE are each investing up to $25 million. WAPA may later decide to own 50% of the line, says Kara Choquette, TWE's director of communications.

In October 2011, TWE was selected as one of seven projects to be fast-tracked by President Barack Obama's Rapid Response Team for Transmission, to help ease permitting review and consultation procedures between federal, state and tribal agencies. But this has not helped speed up TWE, observes Loyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority (WIA), which promotes Wyoming's energy resources and power line development.

The other major transmission project is the revamped Zephyr line, unveiled in September as part of an $8 million package for transmitting Wyoming wind power to Los Angeles. Four companies are involved: Duke-American Transmission Co (DARC), developer Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, power equipment maker Magnum Energy and oilfield equipment supplier Dresser-Rand, which German technology giant Siemens said in September it would buy for $6.4 billion.

Storage point

The package includes: the proposed 2.1GW Pathfinder wind project in Wyoming; one of the world's biggest energy storage facilities - 1.2GW of compressed-air storage in Utah; and the $2.6 billion 500kV Zephyr transmission line, to run 845 kilometres between the two sites by 2023. Power from the storage facility in Utah would then be connected to the California grid by the existing 785-kilometres Southern Transmission System. The 500kV DC line brings power from the 1.8GW coal-fired Intermountain Power Project in Utah, which is expected to be retired within a few years, to six municipal utilities in southern California, including the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, all of them keen to buy more green power.

Zephyr is a scaled-down version of a 1,368-kilometres line first unveiled in 2007 by then-developer TransCanada Corp of Calgary. It was to move more wind power - 3GW in total - from Pathfinder and two other projects into Nevada and California. In 2011, the Canadian oil pipeline company sold the project to DATC, co-owned by Duke Energy, the US's largest electric power holding company, and American Transmission Co, the country's first multi-state transmission-only utility. Chris Jones, DATC's business development managing director, says that the current proposal may eventually be extended. "The interconnection in Utah does not preclude continuing the line to Nevada, if there was commercial interest to do so. Think of it as a first phase of a larger project."

In early 2015, the four companies will formally submit their plan to the Southern California Public Power Authority in response to the agency's request for proposals to supply the Los Angeles area with both renewable energy and electricity storage.

Both TWE and Zephyr are supported by powerful companies, notes Carl Zichella, director of western transmission for the Natural Resources Defence Council, a national environmental charity. He notes that TWE has WAPA on board, and that the developers listened to stakeholders, including trade unions in California. "These are smart people. They are doing the right thing," he says.

Zephyr, a project that is several years behind TWE, likewise has a developer that has been working for years with federal agencies and has invested a great deal of money, such as on securing conservation areas that could be used as mitigation. Zephyr would be mostly sited on federal land, primarily managed by the BLM, while 80% would follow existing utility and federal energy corridors, a boon for the developer.

The economic argument for these lines is certainly there. A 2014 economic analysis conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for WIA indicated that Californians would save $0.5-1 billion in annual generation costs if a new DC line shipped Wyoming wind to California. Wyoming's wind - one of the best onshore resources in the US - blows stronger and more consistently than California's, and it peaks during the day, as does California's electricity usage, whereas California's wind generation peaks at night.

Demand is growing too. Even if California's RPS is not ramped up after 2020 - there has been talk of a 50% RPS by 2030 - the state plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline. And electricity demand in the Los Angeles area has been forecast to rise by 18% by 2024, according to a draft California Energy Commission report in 2013.

Tricky politics

But the politics of inter-state transmission are tricky. California would be expected to characterise wind power from both projects as a "bucket one" resource (an in-state or in-state equivalent resource) because the first point of interconnection would be with a California balancing authority. Thus there would be no limitations on the state's investor-owned utilities procuring it to meet the 33% RPS requirement. "Just because (Wyoming) wind would be bucket one does not mean the utilities are forced to buy it," says WIA's Drain. Indeed, the office of California governor Jerry Brown has expressed doubts to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which oversees grid reliability in the US West, about California importing Wyoming wind. "It's political," sighs Drain. "People in California want to develop (renewables) within their own state. You can't blame them for that," he adds, noting that California consumers would have already saved a great deal of money if Wyoming wind power had been shipped in.

Will both transmission projects be built? "Both are likely to be needed," says Zichella, who believes that one will certainly get built, as does Drain. Of big transmission projects in general, Drain comments: "This business is not for the faint of wallet - or the faint of time."