California Gov. Jerry Brown is well practiced in the ways of the inaugural address.
In his first outing, in 1975, he promised to use millions of dollars in federal aid to put unemployed Californians back to work. More than a quarter-century later, on his third trip to the podium, he called for “courage and sacrifice” in the face of the Great Recession. He promptly went on to propose a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts to fix the state’s budget crisis, a political mix generally as popular as snow on the 4th of July.
And in his fourth, and final, swearing-in last year, he proclaimed California would boost the amount of power it receives from renewable sources to 50 percent by 2030.
It was the type of announcement that caused people to sit-up straight in their chairs, and not just in the Golden State. Roughly 1,000 miles away in Wyoming, the developers of what would be the nation’s largest on-shore wind farm quickly caught word of the proposal.
California has long represented the holy grail for the Power Company of Wyoming, the Anschutz Corp. subsidiary that has proposed building the 3,000 megawatt Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind farm in Carbon County.
California has a mandate that requires 33 percent of its power come from renewable sources by 2020. And with almost 39 million residents in need of electricity, that represents a potentially hefty sum of green electrons.
The problem for wind developers in Wyoming, is Brown and other California policymakers have insisted the Golden State meet its 33 percent mark with power generated from inside the state. California is projected to reach its 2020 benchmark on time.
But Brown’s inaugural address left many wondering if the four-term governor was coming around to the idea of out-of-state renewables.
“They’ve always said if they raised their renewable portfolio, Wyoming would have a place in that new demand,” said Loyd Drain, the executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.
Drain has spent the last five years lobbying California policymakers on the virtues of Wyoming wind.
“They’re going to look to us, I do believe,” he said.
California energy observers offered varying views on whether the announcement signaled a shift. The state Senate is currently debating Brown’s proposal.
There remains a long list of potential developers in the Golden State who could be ready, willing and able to build the types of renewable projects needed for California to reach the 50 percent benchmark, said Jerry R. Bloom, who specializes in renewable energy permitting and financing at the Los Angeles law firm Winston & Strawn.
The state would also realize significant tax and job benefits from seeing the projects built within California, he noted.
“California is so huge that finding enough resources within the state isn’t a problem,” Bloom said. “I don’t think they need Wyoming energy to meet 50 percent.”
The governor’s announcement could open the door to projects like Chokecherry Sierra Madre, he said. But Bloom said he has yet to hear debate about changing California’s preference for in-state renewables as part of discussions surrounding Brown’s proposal.
V. Jon White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento, said there is growing recognition that California could benefit from cooperating with its neighbors on renewables.
California boasts considerable solar resources, but that power tends to peak at certain times in the day. Adding wind power from places like Wyoming brings geographic and technological diversity to the electric grid, he said.
White figures a regional system would also be more efficient and reliable, delivering renewable power at cheaper prices.
“California legislators and politicians are still going to want to capture as much benefit as they can for the state,” he said. The benefit of thinking regionally, he added, “is we can do it more successfully and cheaply than we have.”
And there is reason to think California is open to an increasingly regional approach, he noted. PacifiCorp, an Oregon utility that serves six western states, recently announced it had entered into an agreement with the California Independent System Operator to study a potential partnership. CISO manages 80 percent of the Golden State’s electrical system.
“It is not so much a technological or economic challenge,” White said. “It will require institutional changes, more cooperation with our neighbors.”
Proponents of Chokecherry Sierra Madre have argued California ratepayers would benefit from Wyoming’s winds, which are among the strongest in the nation. A Wyoming Infrastructure Authority-commissioned study found Golden State ratepayers would save $1 billion annually by plugging into wind projects in the Cowboy State.
The Pathfinder Zephyr Wind Project, which would generate between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts, has also been proposed near Chugwater.
Chokecherry Sierra Madre remains closer to the finish-line, however. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to issue a record of decision for a 730-mile transmission line, which would carry power from Saratoga to Las Vegas, later this year.
A final environmental assessment for the first half of the wind farm, consisting of 500 turbines, is also expected before the end of the year.
A Power Company of Wyoming application with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for something known as an “eagle take” permit is perhaps the greatest regulatory hurdle remaining.
The permit would protect the company against prosecution under federal laws protecting migratory birds should a certain number of eagles be killed by turbines.
A draft is expected by August.
Company officials called Brown’s announcement one in a series of positive developments. They, too, pointed to PacifiCorp’s recent announcement, as well as the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s initiative to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent of 2005 levels. The plan, once finalized, could provide additional incentives for regional cooperation, they noted.
“We are seeing the landscape changing not just in California, but regionally,” said Roxane Perruso, Power Company of Wyoming vice president and general council. “I believe it is acknowledging that we are all tied together.”
Hurdles remain, however. The first draft of the Clean Power Plan prompted questions from state and industry officials over who gets credit for the renewable energy production. Is it Wyoming, where Chokecherry Sierra Madre is generating the power? Or is it California, where the electrons are being consumed?
The project still lacks a contract with a utility that would buy the wind farm’s power. Discussions on such an agreement are confidential, Perruso said.
But in a recent interview with the Pacific Standard another company executive acknowledged the lack of a deal kept him up at night.
“The market is without a doubt the biggest risk,” Bill Miller told the magazine.
And so the company is planning accordingly. If California won’t take Chokecherry Sierra Madre’s power, there is always a chance Nevada or Arizona will.
“Our market has always been the desert southwest,” Perruso said.
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