Western ‘state of energy’ is diverse, constantly changing

Like a presidential State of the Union address, the recent ‘State of Energy in the West’ report covers a lot of territory and requires some time to digest.

The 100-page-plus document released by the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) June 28 touches on energy subjects ranging from coal mining to electric vehicle charging.

The report was released in connection with a WGA meeting in Utah and portrays the American West as the nation’s energy “breadbasket.” The West is depicted as a region both conventional and renewable resources.

The report uses figures on natural resource production and electric generation to illustrate that the West is already an ‘indispensable’ region for energy. At the same time, research and development in the western states will advance the technology for everything from electric vehicles to small modular reactors.

West is already top producer of fuel and energy, figures show

The report notes that the West accounts for more than half the coal mined in the nation, and nearly 70% of its natural gas and petroleum production. In 2011, coal and natural gas accounted for 67% of all electricity produced nationally.

In 2011 Wyoming’s coal production surpassed the entire national output of Russia. Meanwhile, Texas leads the nation in natural gas production.

The West is also home to the nation’s largest areas of “high value” wind power resource.

Current estimates suggest that approximately 66% of domestic installed wind power capacity is located in the West. At the end of 2012, all 19 Western states harnessed wind energy with a total cumulative output of 39,577 MW

Also California has become the national leader in installed solar generation capacity; with a total output nearly triple that of the next largest state, according to the report.

Geothermal power is almost exclusively Western with 99% of the installed capacity in 2011.

Western states accounted for 70% of national hydropower generation in 2011. More than half of all U.S. hydro power production occurs in California, Washington and Oregon, the WGA reports.

On the nuclear front, Pinnacle West’s (NYSE:PNW) Palo Verde is the largest nuclear station in the land. The Arizona complex has three pressurized water reactors (PWRs) capable of generating about 3,800 MW. Western states also accounted for 100% of the nation’s uranium mining in 2012.

Trends point toward evolving energy technology

At the same time, companies like Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL) are spearheading key energy research in the region. In Colorado, Xcel Energy has partnered with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to develop wind forecasting.

The report also notes that major transmission upgrades are being developed in the West to help move power produced from renewable energy to population centers.

U.S. military bases in western states are increasingly looking to renewable resources for an uninterrupted supply of electricity. The report notes that Nellis Air Force Base northeast of Las Vegas has installed a 14 MW solar park that is capable of meeting more than 25% of the base’s power needs.

The report also looks at some of the special challenges in developing renewable power in land-strapped areas like Hawaii and other places in the Pacific. “Although Hawaii is larger than several Northeastern states, its area is noncontiguous,” the WGA notes.

Nuclear power proponents note that reactors can generate a lot of energy with relatively little land. The downside, however, is that a 1,000-MW nuclear plant can cost billions of dollars.

Some companies in the West have expressed interest in prefabricated small modular reactors (SMRs) that could produce anywhere from 25 MW to 300 MW, according to the WGA.

The amount of cooling water needed for nuclear plants, especially those that utilize “once through” cooling, is a concern in the arid Southwest, according to the WGA report.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.