Utility proceeds with big wind investment in top coal state

President Donald Trump's efforts to roll back coal and climate-change regulations aren't discouraging a utility from making a $3.5 billion investment in wind energy, the bulk of which will build dozens of new wind turbines in the top coal-producing state.

Rocky Mountain Power is ready to present its detailed wind plan to regulators in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, utility officials announced Thursday.

The plan includes building new power lines and putting longer blades on existing wind turbines so they can generate electricity in slower winds. But the biggest part will be building new turbines in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state.

Rocky Mountain Power, which serves more than 1 million customers in the three states, plans to seek proposals for new wind turbine projects in Wyoming in the months ahead.

"These investments will provide significant long-term benefits to our customers and bring substantial economic benefits to rural communities where the facilities will be located," Rocky Mountain Power Chief Executive Officer Cindy Crane said.

The new Wyoming turbines will generate up to 1,270 megawatts. Calculating how many homes that will serve is challenging because the wind doesn't blow all the time but a rough estimate is 190,000, said Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen.

The Salt Lake City-based utility, a subsidiary of Portland, Oregon-based PacifiCorp, plans to get to work quickly before a federal tax credit for wind power begins to ramp down in 2020.

Wyoming, especially, has welcomed Trump's recent moves to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing, reconsider climate-change regulations and back off an international climate-change accord. The state supplies about 40 percent of the nation's coal.

The U.S. coal industry in 2016 slogged through its worst year since the 1970s as utilities continued to prefer cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity. Mines in the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming and southern Montana laid off hundreds of workers.

Trump, who won Wyoming by a more than 46-point margin, has reinvigorated the hopes of many in the state. But long-term economic trends factor into Rocky Mountain Power's planning much more than the policies of any given administration, according to Eskelsen.

"For a long time, we have determined in that long-range planning process that the most cost-effective resources for customers are wind and natural gas," Eskelsen said.

Wyoming already is home to the biggest wind farm in the works in the U.S., the $5 billion Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project under development by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz. The up to 3,000-megawatt project will have as many as 1,000 turbines.

Road work began last year and turbines will go up as soon as next year.

The Anschutz project will export wind energy to the Southwest to help California meet is renewable energy requirements. Rocky Mountain Power's wind power will help serve PacifiCorp's six-state region, which includes the Pacific Northwest and northern California.


Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver