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Sep 23, 2014 6:49 PM

Wind energy proposal would light 1.3 million homes

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Four energy companies proposed an $8 billion project Tuesday that within a decade could send wind power generated on the plains of Wyoming to power-thirsty households in Southern California.

The sprawling venture if approved and financed would create one of the country's largest wind farms, a huge energy storage site 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 new proposal would potentially generate twice as much energy as the 1930s-era dam, enough to serve 1.3 million people annually. It calls for construction of an expansive wind farm 40 miles north of Cheyenne and a massive energy storage site inside caverns in Utah.

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.

"This would certainly be one of the most ambitious and expensive energy infrastructure projects we have seen," said Travis Miller, an industry analyst for investment research giant Morningstar Inc. "Energy storage, paired with renewable energy, has been the Holy Grail of utilities and energy companies."

With potential shifts in government policy, environmental regulation and the economics of producing green power "any infrastructure project that looks out nine, ten years, has a lot of uncertainties," he said.

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.

California agency officials said they were unaware of the proposal. The authority has been seeking proposals to supply the Los Angeles region with renewable energy.

The new plan "would be completing with 200 other proposals," said Steven Homer, the director of project management for the authority, which delivers electricity to approximately 2 million customers.

Wind development in Wyoming's wide expanses has surged in the past decade as companies and state officials seek cleaner alternatives to coal.

The proposed wind power development near Chugwater would be a boon to the sleepy ranching town of 216 residents nestled below 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 percent 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 is a 1,000-turbine site planned by The Anschutz Corp. That project near Saratoga, in south-central Wyoming, is the largest under development in the U.S.

The rapid growth in wind power has come with a cost, however. The U.S. government estimates at least 85 eagles are killed each year by 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 plan would be a $1.5 billion energy storage site near Delta, Utah, 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The rural area already 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 have been invested in wind and solar projects. Finding an economical way to store renewable energy, however, has been a key issue.

Under the proposal, the energy would be stored through a compressed-air system using caverns, similar to a system that has been used in Alabama since the early 1990s. When energy demand is low, excess electricity would be used to compress and inject high-pressure air into the four 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.


AP Energy Writer Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.


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