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Wyoming wind energy project officials aggressively set to-do list

CHEYENNE – As Pathfinder Renewable Energy LLC looks toward building the state’s largest wind energy program in southeast Wyoming, there’s a long list of hurdles to cross besides building the turbines themselves.

First off, the company has to pass the lengthy approval process for the Zephyr transmission line project, which would send thousands of megawatts of wind-generated electricity from southeast Wyoming down to power-hungry Southern California.

Then there’s preparing a 550,000-acre expanse of land near Alcova to serve as Wyoming’s first mitigation bank, a site devoted to preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat to offset any environmental harm the project might cause.

As for the 100,000-acre wind farm itself, General Electric has been working to craft special high-altitude turbines and blades that can wring every last kilowatt from each gust of Wyoming wind.

All this work is under way with an eye toward getting the Pathfinder and Zephyr projects completed and generating 2,100 megawatts per year of wind power by 2016, said Bradley Williams, a Pathfinder executive advisor, in a presentation Tuesday during the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s quarterly board meeting in Cheyenne.

“We’re getting ready to start the race, and we’ve been doing all the training,” Williams said. “Even though you don’t see it, there’s a lotta, lotta work going on by a lotta, lotta people. And there’s a lotta, lotta money getting spent.”

The Alcova-based Pathfinder gets much of its funding from Sammons Power Development LLC, an affiliate of the Dallas-based Sammons Enterprises, one of the largest privately owned companies in the world. The Pathfinder wind farm itself would sprawl over leased land on each side of Interstate 25 near Chugwater.

“We tried to identify, where is there great wind, where are there no sage grouse, and where is there a need for economic development?” Williams said. The state restricts development on specified “core population areas” of sage grouse.

At the same time, he said, the company is working with the energy company TransCanada and two other wind energy companies – Horizon and BP – to build the $3 billion, 1,000-mile-long Zephyr transmission line.

Large, high-voltage lines such as the Zephyr, Williams said, are a preferable alternative to what many Wyomingites fear: a jumbled spaghetti plate of small collector lines across the state.

“We want it to be nice and concise and tight,” he said. “And really, it impacts the environment less, but it also means that it’s cheaper for us, the developer.”

Pathfinder’s hope is for the Zephyr transmission line to be built simultaneously with its wind project, as each relies on the other to function. Williams said his company is about “90 percent ready” to enter the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s permitting process.

“With the regulations and the attention to detail that the government’s got, we’re 2 ½ years before we start turning dirt in the field,” Williams said.

In addition, Pathfinder has deployed a team of 45 biologists to Pathfinder Ranch and numerous other participating ranches near Alcova to help create a mitigation bank that’s one-fourth the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The goal is to not only protect the roughly 40 species that live there – including sage grouse – but to help them thrive, Williams said. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has signed off on the process, he said.

“It’s not simply setting aside property that you don’t touch,” he said. “It’s actually setting aside property and enhancing habitat so that you get more sage grouse, more jumping lizards, more –what’s my favorite one? – the hopping frog.”

Pathfinder’s turbines will be built by GE – a company that Williams said is working to construct equipment tailor-made for Wyoming’s high plains, where the thinner air doesn’t provide as much pressure when it hits the turbine blades.

The whole idea, Williams said, is to take advantage of California’s demand for renewable energy: the state has mandated that 33 percent of its energy come from renewable resources by 2020. “We’re not going to supply all their renewable energy, but we can supply a good portion of it,” he said. “And we can probably do it cheaper than rooftop solar out of Arizona or California.”