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A power plan in the wind

Philip Anschutz hopes to import thousands of megawatts from a massive wind farm in Wyoming. California officials are skeptical.

January 24, 2013|Marc Lifsher

SACRAMENTO — Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has pushed to bring a football stadium to Los Angeles, also wants to bring wind power to California.

A plan being marketed in Sacramento would bring California utilities thousands of megawatts of electricity from a massive wind farm in Wyoming being developed by the entertainment and energy mogul, who also developed L.A. Live and Staples Center.

The idea is being promoted by Wyoming state officials who say that, besides benefiting Anschutz, it could be an economic boost for the Cowboy State and an environmental plus for California, providing cleaner power at a good price.

The proposal comes at a time when renewable energy is a priority for California utilities. A state law requires that by 2020, they produce 33% of their power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal. A variety of California companies already provide wind power, and other firms in and out of the state have also expressed interest in providing renewable power.

The proposed Wyoming wind farm and high-voltage transmission line -- aimed for completion between 2016 and 2018 -- face regulatory, corporate and political hurdles.

In California, its supporters highlight the environmental and economic pluses, while doubters question the wisdom of buying out-of-state power and losing "green jobs" to Wyoming. The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, while noncommittal, has been unenthusiastic and has raised questions about the idea.

The Wyoming wind farm and power transmission lines are being developed by two Anschutz Corp. subsidiaries: Power Co. of Wyoming and Transwest Express. In all, they plan to invest up to $9 billion on 1,000 generators at a 500-square-mile ranch on Interstate 80 in south-central Wyoming. The area boasts some of the nation's most consistently strong winds.

Last fall, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved plans for the wind farm, much of it on federal land. He described it as potentially the largest wind energy project in the United States. It faces further environmental review, but officials hope to start construction in 2014.

Separately, environmental officials are reviewing the impact of the proposed 725-mile transmission line from the ranch to the Eldorado Valley south of Las Vegas near Boulder City, Nev.

From there, Wyoming officials and the Anschutz subsidiaries hope California utilities will buy and deliver wind power over existing transmission lines that boosters say could carry enough electricity to power the equivalent of 1.9 million Southern California homes. Any such agreement would have to be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission.

Anschutz is no stranger to energy projects, and his companies have considerable clout in Sacramento and Los Angeles City Hall.

The 72-year-old parlayed his father's oil and gas business into railroads, telecommunications companies, newspapers and movie production companies, turning him into one of America's richest entrepreneurs with a net worth estimated near $7 billion.

In the 1980s, Anschutz owned the Rio Grande railroad and later rival Southern Pacific. He also founded Qwest Communications, a telecommunications firm in which he made hundreds of millions of dollars in stock sales. He turned his interest to sports and entertainment in the 1990s. His L.A. Live and Staples Center investments helped reinvigorate downtown Los Angeles.

In 2011, his Los Angeles entertainment subsidiary AEG Inc. persuaded the Legislature to rewrite state environmental laws to speed approval of its plan for a proposed NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles. The City Council approved the plan in September. (Last fall, Anschutz also announced a plan to sell AEG.)

Bringing wind power to California would have both economic and environmental advantages, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority contends. The government agency has been briefing dozens of energy officials, grid operators, academics and environmentalists in the state on the benefits of the project.

"The value of delivering wind energy from Wyoming to California is compelling," said Loyd G. Drain, the Wyoming authority's executive director and top salesman.

Ratepayers in California could see an overall cut in utility bills of $700 million a year, the equivalent of the cost of building a large, natural-gas-fired power plant, the authority says, citing two recent studies.

A 2011 study by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council concluded that California residential, commercial and industrial ratepayers could save $600 million by buying some Wyoming power instead of California-generated renewables. That's because the wind blows longer and stronger in Wyoming than in California, the report said.

A second study, released last week by the University of Wyoming, says an additional $100 million a year could be saved if California combined 3,000 megawatts of Wyoming wind energy with the same amount of in-state wind power.

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