Four companies proposed an $8-billion (U.S.) project Tuesday that within a decade could send wind energy generated on the plains of Wyoming to power-thirsty households in Southern California.
The sprawling project – if approved and financed – would create one of the country's largest wind farms 40 miles north of Cheyenne, a huge energy storage site inside caverns in a Utah salt formation and a 525-mile electric transmission line connecting them.
"This project would be the 21st century's Hoover Dam," said Jeff Meyer of Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, one of the companies behind the plan, referring to the 726-foot high span across the Colorado River that for decades has produced hydroelectric power for Nevada, Arizona, and California.
The power – potentially twice the amount produced by the 1930s-era dam, enough to serve 1.3 million people annually – would be sent on to California through an existing 490-mile line.
It's success hinges on a string of uncertainties, including clearing government regulatory hurdles and striking agreements to sell the power that would be essential to secure financing to build it.
Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, Magnum Energy, Dresser-Rand and Duke-American Transmission Co. said in a statement they plan to submit the blueprint to the Southern California Public Power Authority by early 2015.
The California agency, anchored to 11 municipal utilities, delivers electricity to approximately 2 million customers. It's seeking proposals to supply the Los Angeles region with renewable energy and power storage. Agency officials did not immediately return a call for comment.
Wind development in Wyoming's wide expanses has surged in the past decade as companies and state officials seek cleaner alternatives to burning coal for electricity. The proposed wind power development near Chugwater would be a boom to the sleepy ranching town of 216 nestled below beige sandstone bluffs on the high prairie.
A decade ago, in a desperate bid to revive their economically depressed community, town officials sold city lots for $100 apiece on the condition that the buyer would build a house and live there at least two years. Results were mixed, at best: Chugwater's population dropped 11 per cent from 2000 to 2012, even as Wyoming's overall economy grew and population increased.
If completed, it would become Wyoming's second-largest wind power project. The biggest under development in the U.S. is a 1,000-turbine site planned by Denver-based The Anschutz Corp. near Saratoga, in south-central Wyoming.
The rapid growth in wind power has come with a cost – the government estimates at least 85 eagles are killed each year after flying into wind turbines. An Associated Press investigation in 2013 revealed that the Obama administration was not prosecuting wind energy companies for killing eagles and other protected birds.
A lynchpin in the companies' plan would be a $1.5-billion energy storage site near Delta, Utah, 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The rural area is home to one coal-powered plant that generates electricity for Los Angeles County.
With the push for pollution-free energy sources that can help reduce greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, billions of dollars has been invested in wind and solar projects. But finding an economical way to store energy has been a key issue given the fluctuating nature of power generated by wind or sun. Under the proposal, the energy would be stored through a compressed-air system using four caverns carved out of underground salt formations, similar to a system that has been used in Alabama since the early 1990s.
When energy demand is low, excess electricity from the wind farm would be used to compress and inject high-pressure air into the caverns, each of which would have 41 million cubic feet of volume. At times of high energy demand, the high-pressure air would be combined with a small amount of natural gas to power eight electricity-producing generators, the statement said.