Energy News: The Status of Wind Energy Development in Utah

By Philip Powlick

Electricity, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

For many people, the iconic image of renewable energy is the modern wind farm—tall white towers with long, sleek blades gracefully rolling across the sky. Commuters between Salt Lake and Utah Counties are used to seeing the two turbines at Camp Williams, but to-date these are Utah’s only large wind turbines. Many Utahns who have traveled elsewhere in the West have seen large wind farms in states such as Wyoming or Oregon and wondered why, with its wide-open spaces and growing electricity demand, are there not such sights in Utah?

The siting of a wind farm represents a grand compromise of many, sometimes contradictory, factors. The importance of wind speed is a given. Wind speeds tend to be greater at high altitude, but air density— which is greatest at low altitude and with low temperatures— is also important. Smooth air flow is also desirable, so wide-open spaces with little vegetation are also useful. There are few places where one can find all of these in the same place, except perhaps Antarctica—where there is little demand for electricity. And this raises yet another issue—load and transmission. To be commercially viable, a wind farm must be close enough to electricity consumers, or to large transmission lines, to take the power to them. Southern Wyoming—high, cold plains with wind speeds that can knock you over—is fairly well suited for wind power production. Limited local demand and transmission capacity, however, keep Wyoming from having even more wind farms. For the most part, though Utah has greater demand for power, we lack large areas of sustained high winds. However, there are local wind phenomena that are conducive to wind power development, and wind farms will soon be coming to Utah, albeit on a smaller scale than in some neighboring states.

The intersection of mountains, valleys, and canyons can sometimes create the conditions for commercial production of wind power. Long canyons descending from high mountains can create significant nighttime wind flows as cold air drops and is channeled toward a canyon mouth. Residents at the mouths of Spanish Fork and Weber Canyons are familiar with this phenomenon, and it is at Spanish Fork that Utah’s first commercial wind farm may well be built. Currently planned to be in service by the end of 2007, Wasatch Wind’s Spanish Fork project involves nine turbines, each rated at 2,100 kilowatts (kW) of peak output. These will be large turbines. For comparison purposes, the larger of the two machines at Camp Williams has a capacity of 665 kW, less than one-third that of each planned Spanish Fork turbine.

The Stockton Bar—a preserved section of ancient Lake Bonneville shoreline in Tooele County spanning the valley between South Mountain and the Oquirrh Mountains— is another example of a local feature that can create commercially viable wind power. Near Stockton, two mountain ranges come together, creating a funnel that channels the predominant southerly winds. The bar itself, rising 30 meters (100 feet) above the valley floor, sees high winds as air is further channeled up and over. Two of the UGS’ 50-meter (160 ft) anemometer towers are currently deployed at Stockton Bar in support of the Pioneer Wind project, a 70,000 kW project planned by Tasco Engineering. An additional two UGS towers are in place just north of the bar as well, where the U.S. Army is planning to install one or two turbines at the Tooele Army Depot.

As exciting as these projects are, one recently proposed project dwarfs them all. The Escalante Valley is a northeast- trending valley that runs for over 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Iron, through Beaver, and into Millard Counties. With predominant winds out of the southwest (parallel to the mountain ranges that bound it both east and west) and a wide, flat, and tree-less floor, the section of the valley along the Beaver/Millard border is one of the few places in Utah where truly large-scale wind development may be possible. After quietly collecting data for several years in the area north of Milford, UPC Wind, a wind development firm based in Massachusetts, unveiled plans in November 2006 for a 400,000 kW project. Phase One of the UPC project calls for 80 2,500 kW turbines to be built in Beaver County in early 2008. An additional 80 turbines are to be built a year later in Beaver and Millard Counties. Each turbine will sit on an 80-meter-tall (260 ft) tower and the length of each of the turbine’s three blades will be over 50 meters (160 ft). A 145-kilometer (90 mi) transmission line is to be built to the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta to bring the electricity to market. All told, this project is expected to cost between $700 and $800 million!

Utah is not blessed with the best wind resources in the West, but with growing demand for renewable energy and local wind resources, Utah is on the verge of significant wind energy resource development. And likely more will follow. UGS anemometer towers are measuring the wind in many parts of Utah (see Survey Notes, September 2006). Just as it does with characterizing Utah’s fossil fuel resources, the UGS is seeking to build our understanding of Utah’s resources and, hopefully, will play a major role in allowing more Utahns to enjoy the graceful dancing of turbine blades, not to mention the benefits of renewable energy.

Survey Notes, v. 39 no. 2, May 2007