Electricity generation projects in Wyoming harnessing the power of wind are moving forward, and the industry is a fairly major player in energy production. Just like fossil fuels are abundant here, so, too, is wind as a natural resource.
Part of the reason for increasing demand for wind power is an additional emphasis on renewable energy projects. And some aspects unique to Wyoming are also driving development of the industry in the state.
The state’s topography provides for a funneling effect created by diagonally oriented mountain ranges that push air currents toward the south-central area of the state. These regularly occurring gusts rival the strongest in the world and pose a hazard for light trailers and high-profile vehicles. Conversely, they represent an untapped opportunity for Wyoming to become a leading producer of this energy, which is harnessed without creating additional harmful chemical emissions.
The U.S. Department of Energy recognizes wind as a potential energy resource in every state. In 2008, the department set a goal to have 20% of energy nationwide generated by wind by 2030, and that number increases to 35% by 2050.
Existing infrastructure in Wyoming ranks the state 17th in terms of annual wattage generated. Among approximately 20 wind farms around the state, most are situated in Converse and Carbon counties and produced an estimated 3,179 megawatts in 2021. To put that in perspective, the Solar Energy Industries Association estimates 1 megawatt of solar can power 164 U.S. homes. Therefore, Wyoming’s existing wind power infrastructure represents energy to support more than 500,000 homes.
There is a project underway just south of Rawlins that will, when complete and in full operation, nearly double the state’s annual wind-generated wattage.
“Our project is unusual for Wyoming and nationwide for a number of reasons,” Power Co. of Wyoming spokesperson Kara Choquette said of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. “One is that it’s located, in part, on land that belongs to the (Bureau of Land Management). Most wind projects are on private land or state land. Only about 1% of wind power nationwide is on federal lands today.”
Choquette explained that developing wind power on federal land requires a more lengthy permitting and developing process that includes everything from multiple public hearings to completing intricate environmental and geological studies to determine how to proceed in a way that represents a best-case scenario for various interests. The BLM land south of Rawlins is part of the “checkerboard” land distribution that originated after the development of the railroad in the same area.
The second reason Choquette gave that makes this wind project unique is that it will be placed on land owned by the company. PCW is a subsidiary of Anschutz Corp., a holding company based in Denver and owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has diversified interests in both renewable and nonrenewable energy. The ranch along Interstate 80 is and will continue to operate as a working cattle ranch, as well.
The project will consist of approximately 900 turbines that represent an initial $5 billion investment. The permitting process and initial construction phase, which largely involves making roads and sites for turbines, has been ongoing for more than a decade. Today, the projected completion date is 2026.
PacifiCorp, another major energy company in the state that owns Rocky Mountain Power, announced last summer it was planning four new wind projects in Wyoming that would add an estimated 1,150 megawatts of new generating capability.
In addition to increasing production capacity, an additional consideration of wind farm development is the logistics of how to get the power to where it will be used.
Much of the power generated in Wyoming is sent around the western U.S., especially the Southwest, where demand for clean power is high. Delivering energy across hundreds of miles requires establishing and maintaining infrastructure.
In addition to adding turbines at Cedar Springs, Ekola Flats and TB Flats, PacifiCorp is construction 140 miles of high-voltage transmission from a newly built station near Medicine Bow to another substation near the Jim Bridger Power Plant by Point of Rocks.
“The new transmission eliminates existing constraints, connects the new generation resources to customers and enhances network reliability with deployment of advanced voltage control technology,” PacifiCorp said in a news release.
“In terms of available non-emitting generation resources, wind stacks up very well, and will continue to be an important resource for meeting PacifiCorp’s ongoing need for new generation resources to reliably serve customers,” said PacifiCorp spokesperson Jasen Lee, adding that the company’s integrated resource plan anticipates adding more than 3,700 megawatts of new wind resources by 2040.
Lee said the proven nature of wind technology and favorable wind conditions in the state make for safe investing in wind energy.
“Other factors include the increasing efficiency of wind as the technology is scaled to higher nameplate capacities and larger rotor diameters, and PacifiCorp’s experience as an operator of these resources in Wyoming and knowledge of what is necessary to operate these resources in a manner that benefits local communities and addresses potential avian and other environmental impacts,” Lee said by email.
According to the American Clean Power Association, there are many myths about wind power that need to be put to rest. One is that it takes more energy to manufacture and build a wind turbine than that same turbine will produce. In actuality, an average turbine neutralizes its carbon footprint in under six months, and can generate emission-free energy for 20 to 30 years afterward. In general, the cost of generating wind power has declined by 65% over the last 10 years, making it one of the cheapest sources of new electricity in many geographical areas.
Other frequent concerns brought forward during public hearings have to do with the associated noise and shadow flicker, or light disturbances caused by rotating blades, associated with the turbines. Science has shown wind farms do not cause any negative physical health effects to people.
Wind projects have existed in Wyoming for decades and have experienced slow and steady expansion. Additionally, ongoing technological improvements promise increasing efficiency. In 2022, wind power comes in fourth nationally as a source of zero-emission power generation.
“There’s room for everything in Wyoming,” Choquette said. “It’s a state blessed with many resources that have many different markets. I’m always talking about both and all — it’s all of the above. It’s how do we get to net zero and put all the pieces together.”