SACRAMENTO – Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has pushed to bring a football stadium to Los Angeles, also wants to bring wind power to California.
A plan being marketed in Sacramento would bring California utilities thousands of megawatts of electricity from a massive wind farm in Wyoming being developed by the entertainment and energy mogul who also developed L.A. Live and Staples Center.
The idea is being promoted by Wyoming state officials who say that, besides benefiting Anschutz, it could be an economic boost for the Cowboy State and an environmental plus for California, providing cleaner power at a good price.
The proposal comes at a time when renewable energy is a priority for California utilities. A state law requires that by 2020, they produce 33% of their power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal. A variety of California companies already provide wind power, and other firms in and out of the state have also expressed interest in providing renewable power.
The proposed Wyoming wind farm and high-voltage transmission line – aimed for completion between 2016 and 2018 – face regulatory, corporate and political hurdles.
In California, its supporters highlight the environmental and economic pluses, while doubters question the wisdom of buying out-of-state power and losing “green jobs” to Wyoming. The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, while noncommittal, has been unenthusiastic and has raised questions about the idea.
The Wyoming wind farm and power transmission lines are being developed by two Anschutz Corp. subsidiaries: Power Co. of Wyoming and Transwest Express. In all, they plan to invest up to $9 billion on 1,000 generators at a 500-square-mile ranch on Interstate 80 in south-central Wyoming. The area boasts some of the nation’s most consistently strong winds.
Last fall, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved plans for the wind farm, much of it on federal land. He described it as potentially the largest wind energy project in the United States. It faces further environmental review, but officials hope to start construction in 2014.
Separately, environmental officials are reviewing the impact of the proposed 725-mile transmission line from the ranch to the Eldorado Valley south of Las Vegas near Boulder City, Nev.
From there, Wyoming officials and the Anschutz subsidiaries hope California utilities will buy and deliver wind power over existing transmission lines that boosters say could carry enough electricity to power the equivalent of 1.9 million Southern California homes. Any such agreement would have to be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission.
Anschutz is no stranger to energy projects, and his companies have considerable clout in Sacramento and Los Angeles City Hall.
The 72-year-old parlayed his father’s oil and gas business into railroads, telecommunications companies, newspapers and movie production companies, turning him into one of America’s richest entrepreneurs with a net worth estimated near $7 billion.
In the 1980s, he owned the Rio Grande railroad and later rival Southern Pacific. He also founded Qwest Communications, a telecommunications firm in which he made hundreds of millions of dollars in stock sales. He turned his interest to sports and entertainment in the 1990s. His L.A. Live and Staples Center investments helped reinvigorate downtown Los Angeles.
In 2011, his Los Angeles entertainment subsidiary AEG Inc. persuaded the Legislature to rewrite state environmental laws to speed approval of its plan for a proposed NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles. The City Council approved the plan in September. (Last fall, Anschutz also announced a plan to sell AEG.)
Bringing wind power to California would have both economic and environmental advantages, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority contends. The government agency has been briefing dozens of energy officials, grid operators, academics and environmentalists in the state on the benefits of the project.
“The value of delivering wind energy from Wyoming to California is compelling,” said Loyd G. Drain, the Wyoming authority’s executive director and top salesman.
Ratepayers in California could see an overall cut in utility bills of $700 million a year, the equivalent of the cost of building a large, natural-gas-fired power plant, the authority says, citing two recent studies.
A 2011 study by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council concluded that California residential, commercial and industrial ratepayers could save $600 million by buying some Wyoming power instead of California-generated renewables. That’s because the wind blows longer and stronger in Wyoming than in California, the report said.
A second study, released last week by the University of Wyoming, says an additional $100 million a year could be saved if California combined 3,000 megawatts of Wyoming wind energy with the same amount of in-state wind power.
But Wyoming faces some significant challenges before the windmills start turning and the transmission lines begin delivering Wyoming power to California, experts say. California wind and solar generators probably would rankle at the out-of-state competition, and California labor unions may raise complaints about losing jobs to other states.
Meanwhile, elected officials may want to ensure that all new green-energy jobs boost California’s economy and are not shipped to another western state, said Jan Smutny-Jones, executive director of the Independent Energy Producers Assn., whose members operate in California and throughout the West.
“Every governor everywhere in the country wants to do the ribbon cutting” in their own states, he said. At the same time, Utah and Nevada residents could oppose the stringing of cables across their states, and California desert dwellers could object to adding power lines from the Nevada border to the Los Angeles basin.
A spokesman for California’s governor declined to comment on the Wyoming proposal. But Brown’s office provided a copy of an Aug. 3, 2011, letter to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council that expressed doubt about the wisdom of bringing power across long distances to California.
Such projects are prone to cost overruns and permitting problems, wrote Michael Picker, Brown’s senior advisor for renewable energy facilities. “Transmission lines proposed to stretch hundreds of miles over private and public lands face significant permitting and development risk,” he wrote.
The letter also stressed that California utilities have lined up enough power purchase agreements to meet the upcoming 33% renewable goal.
The Brown administration’s lack of enthusiasm may be more about politics than economics, suggested Frank Wolak, an economist and director of Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development. The governor and lawmakers may be more interested in creating construction jobs at California alternative energy projects than in accessing cheaper Wyoming wind power, he said.
“If you want the cheapest renewable energy out there,” there’s little reason not to allow out-of-state developers to deliver it via the equivalent of a “long extension cord” from other states, Wolak said.
For now, though, neither Anschutz nor his wind power and transmission operations say they’re seeking anything from California energy officials and politicians other than a fair hearing.
Because the project is still in the permit stages, it is too early to sign up California utilities, said Bill Miller, president of both Anschutz companies. But he is convinced the price will be right.
“The big key from our point of view in regard to marketing our project is the price point,” he said. “I’m confident that … we will be very competitive.”
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