A Life Cycle Assessment Review of Wind Power in Wyoming

By Kay A. Modi, JHCGA's Energy Analyst in Residence

As renewable energy investment and demand continue to grow nationally, there has been an increase in criticisms of wind power that state it is not a true “green” industry due to the energy needed to manufacture the turbines and turbine blades that end up in landfills, rather than being recycled. Wind power is a significant source of new energy infrastructure in Wyoming while traditional fossil fuels may be fading or transitioning in investment. Currently, it is estimated that wind power creates 12% of the electrical power generation in Wyoming.

With approximately 50% of top-quality wind in the country, wind power is both economically competitive in Wyoming and assessed as a low carbon footprint energy source for electricity generation in the United States. The proximity of the US’s highest ranked wind speed corridor (Class 6 and 7) throughout southeastern Wyoming aligns with many other states’ advantages to produce lost-cost clean electricity for transmission to those that need it. This includes residences, commercial activities, and industry. Several major wind energy projects are underway in Wyoming including the 3,000 MW Sierra Madre and Chokecherry project, the 500+ MW Rail Tie Project, the 400 MW Boswell Springs project in Albany County, the 300 MW Roundhouse Project in Laramie County, the plans of Rocky Mountain Power to bring approximately 1,600 MW of wind power to Wyoming by 2024, and more. The projected total of 6,200 MW of wind power (current and under construction) will make Wyoming a major source of clean energy for western states. Additionally, the recent investments in electrical transmission enhance the energy economy of the State.

Wind power has been documented to have a low carbon footprint with the standard application of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This has been documented by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) within the US Department of Energy. LCA is a standardized approach to determine the potential for carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2 e, otherwise known as greenhouse gases) over the lifetime of a facility. LCA includes emissions from construction, operation with maintenance, and dismantling after a facility is no longer functional. NREL has prepared comparative LCAs for all electricity generation options, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, solar, and wind. Wind power ranks significantly below any fossil fuel power and is comparable to solar and nuclear power.

LCA’s estimation for CO2 e is typically separated into three sections of a facility’s useful life and they are:

  • UPSTREAM: facility construction, including raw material extraction for materials used and consumed, transport of turbine/equipment to the sites, and other pre-operational activities;

  • OPERATION: operation and maintenance, including burning of fossil fuel for coal power or operation of each wind turbine; and

  • DOWNSTREAM: dismantling after a facility is no longer functional, including dismantling, disposal and recycling of a facility’s assets.

Criticisms of wind power and the LCA of wind power are frequently made by advocates of the fossil fuel industry. It is important to note however, that the petroleum industry uses the same LCA approach to justify the conversion of soybeans to biodiesel that would in turn be burned by large construction equipment, farming equipment, and rail or truck engines. The refinery in Cheyenne is under conversion to process plant-based oils (e.g., soybeans) to produce green biodiesel.

The LCA of wind power includes fossil fuels used to produce raw materials, manufacture, and transport wind turbines. However, once built, the wind power infrastructure emissions are insignificant. The total LCA ratio of fossil fuel to wind power is more than 40 times for coal and 35 times for natural gas (NREL information notes higher ratio values). Another criticism of wind power is the exclusion of new electrical transmission lines. The new lines from a wind farm to the existing grid is tiny compared to the distance that Wyoming produced electricity is carried by transmission lines to western states. Even if the LCA of a transmission line segment were added to the LCA of wind power, its total value is still significantly lower than fossil fuel LCAs. The criticism of waste turbine blades filling up landfills needs to be addressed in the DOWNSTREAM LCA options and potential reuse activities. This aspect of the wind power’s DOWNSTREAM is under study in many countries that rely on wind power. However, current CO2 e values from DOWNSTREAM are insignificant based on current LCA practices. Recycling of turbine towers is valuable steel salvage plus extending the life of turbine components from 20 to 30-year life is a major part of the wind industry’s efforts.

Most of the current US electricity transmission grid is old and outdated, getting a C- rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Updating the grid meets several objectives, primarily to be more resilient against frequent severe weather events, be better able to repel cyber-attacks, and to more efficiently carry energy to have reliable sources of power. The electrical transmission lines do not differentiate between electricity generated by coal or wind. While wind power is typically not a sole provider to any large area due to periodic downturn in wind speeds, they work well within an electrical transmission grid for a large area that can be supplemented with other energy sources, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, or hydroelectric power. Wyoming is a well-diversified state for its future planning of electricity generation and transmission to other states.

Revenue support for the State of Wyoming is a significant concern. How to fairly tax clean power, which does not have a mineral extraction basis, and remain competitive in the clean power electricity market is unresolved.

Wyoming uses less than 15% of the electricity generation managed by Rocky Mountain Power and uses about 37% of all electricity generation in the State (2018 estimate). A state-of-the-art transmission line segment (Gateway West) has recently been constructed to sustain the great economy of Wyoming’s electrical generation for western consumers. Additionally, new businesses relocating to Wyoming are requiring clean power sources for their use. A primary driver for increasing low CO2 e power sources in Wyoming is the long-term objectives of the western consumers and new business development in the State. If Wyoming wants to capture a significant portion of this market, it will need to produce clean power, transmit it efficiently, and remain competitive with many other projects being developed in the western half of the US.

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