Carbon County, Wyo., might seem an unlikely site for the United States' largest future renewable energy project. Since the county's founding in the mid-1800s, its economy, like that of much of the rest of the state, has been based on the rich fossil fuel deposits that lie below Wyoming's mountains and high plains.
But coal and gas aren't the only resources Carbon County enjoys in abundance. It's also one of the windiest spots in the country.
Now, two ambitious projects by Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz aim to harness Wyoming's wind and transmit 3 gigawatts of renewable energy, via a 725-mile-long high-voltage transmission line, to markets in the southwestern United States.
That power would be generated by 1,000 turbines spread over 500 square miles of southeast Wyoming, half of it on private land, half on public.
The two elements of the plan -- the wind farm and transmission line -- are being spearheaded by separate affiliates of the Anschutz Corp. TransWest Express LLC is overseeing the power line, while Anschutz affiliate Power Company of Wyoming leads the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project.
The companies estimate that together, the projects will cost $9 billion in investment.
Although the projects are complementary, neither is contingent on the success of the other, said Kara Choquette, director of communications for TransWest Express.
"This isn't the only wind farm being built in Wyoming or the only transmission line proposed," she said. "We see a market for both."
Other projects -- including Duke-American Transmission Co.'s Zephyr line and a project by Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. -- are currently under review by state and federal authorities.
Power to the people
The projects seek to exploit growing energy demand in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. The region boasts one of the highest population growth rates in the country, meaning new sources of power are needed even as the states seek to expand their commitment to green energy through renewable portfolio standards.
California, the nation's biggest energy market, has a legal mandate to produce 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. When signing the target into law in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) stressed that the 33 percent figure was a minimum, opening the door to even more ambitious targets.
Tapping Wyoming wind for just 20 percent of that target could save Californian ratepayers $600 million a year, according to a study by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.
Both of Anschutz's projects are progressing steadily through the Bureau of Land Management's permitting process, and the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm could begin construction as early as this year, Choquette said.
However, neither federal permits nor attractive market signals guarantee that the power generated in Carbon County will find a market in the Southwest.
"You can have all the permits you need in one hand, but if you don't have your power purchase agreement in the other, your project's not going forward," said Lloyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.
The projects could see some push-back from Southwestern governments and regional renewable energy producers. A 2011 letter from Brown to the WECC questioned the viability of the projects, citing the renewable energy projects already slated to come online in California.
Having completed the regulatory process should allow the Anschutz affiliates to make a stronger case with Southwestern utilities, Drain said.
Atmospheric data analyzed by the University of Wyoming's Wind Energy Research Center and published in a recent report indicate that wind energy is generated in the state at least 40 percent of the time, most of it during the day when Southwest utilities would most need the power.
Wind from a checkerboard
Wyoming wind power could smooth the variability generated by more localized sources of renewable energy, the report notes.
Carbon County may not be the windiest place in the United States, but it is a contender for the title. At an elevation of 7,700 feet, winds average 25 miles per hour and give the region a capacity factor of 43 percent of peak wind power output annually.
"This is a unique site ideally suited for larger-scale, lower-impact, least-cost renewable energy development that fully aligns with federal land use goals and federal energy goals," said Bill Miller, president and CEO of the Power Company of Wyoming.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm sits on a checkerboard of public and private land, a pattern of shared ownership established in the mid-1800s when the Union Pacific Railroad was first laying track through the state. In 1862, Congress granted the company every other square-mile section of land within 10 miles of the proposed tracks, a generous allocation it hoped would help the company raise capital for the venture.
Much of the arid land was never sold, however, and today remains under government management.
As a result, the project could count toward both state and federal renewable energy goals.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a record of decision approving the wind project in October, one of the final steps in the regulatory process.
Once construction begins, the projects' developers say they will take roughly five years to complete. "We see this getting done before California's 2020 [renewable energy] deadline kicks in," Choquette said.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the unit of measurement for the area the two Carbon County wind projects would occupy. It is 500 square miles, not acres.