Inter-Mountain Laboratories helps market Wyoming’s windWritten by Christy Hemken
“We specialize in environmental monitoring and analysis, and our air science division monitors air quality and meteorological conditions,” says IML Project Engineer Ronn Smith. “Every place that we monitor air quality we have a meteorological station, too, so that we can correlate the pollution in the air with the atmospheric conditions.”
The lab has been involved in wind energy for the last 10 years, but Smith says activity in Wyoming has really picked up in the last five.
“We’ve done wind monitoring in at least a half-dozen states, but the bulk has been in Wyoming,” he says. “We got involved with the Wyoming Business Council (WBC) about three years ago, when they were looking for someone to analyze and validate the wind data landowners were collecting.”
Smith says IML has worked with at least 20 ranchers around the state on data compilation. “Most of the ranchers collect the data and then send the cartridges to us, then we download the information into our database, analyze it and report the results.” After data is collected, the lab compiles it into a form that means something to wind energy developers.
Although IML puts up most of its own towers and instrumentation, WBC enlists a contractor to install their equipment.
IML, which was founded in 1979, primarily conducts environmental monitoring with soil analyses and water and air quality data for the mining and oil and gas industries.
“We also have public clients like the state of Wyoming and municipalities and consulting firms,” says IML Vice President of Engineering Services Kevin Chartier. “Because most of the systems we operate for air quality have a meteorological monitoring system along with them, it was a natural transition when wind resource evaluation came into demand.”
IML meteorologist Shane Hansen conducts much of the hands-on work, while Smith assists and is instrumental in setting up software and turbine modeling.
“The turbine technology has changed over the years, and they keep getting bigger and more efficient,” says Smith. “We have a dozen different turbine makes and models in our library that we can simulate for a given meteorological situation.”
He says one thing unique to monitoring for wind energy is that developers want to know a profile of the wind at different altitudes. “The towers the landowners have are 50 to 60 meters tall, with instruments at three levels. Our software takes advantage of that additional information to project how a wind turbine would operate.”
Standard wind turbines are now 80 meters, or about 250 feet, tall at the hub.
“Transmission is still a problem for many of these landowners – how to get the electricity from a wind farm to a major transmission line so it can get out to the market,” says Smith. “Wyoming doesn’t have the market to support the kind of wind energy they’re talking about developing.”
Smith references the TOT 3 line that is planned to run from southeast Wyoming to the Denver area. “That would be a high-voltage line carrying a lot of wind energy in that direction, where it’s needed. Colorado not only has a large population, they’re under a legislative mandate to utilize a certain amount of renewable energy.”
“The Western Governors’ Association is trying to step back and look at the big picture and develop some long-term goals and policies that will get more transmission in place,” says Smith, who is a member of the Western Governors’ Association Clean and Diversified Energy Working Group, Wind Energy Task Force.
According to Smith, one dark cloud over wind energy development is investors’ reluctance to put money into wind farms without a more long-term certainty on the federal production tax credit.
“It’s a subsidy to encourage more wind energy, but the uncertainty could slow things down, depending on what Congress does,” he says.
Smith says an energy research lab in Boulder, Colo. completed a study of states contiguous to Wyoming. “Wyoming was in the top six or seven states in wind energy resource based on how much energy is in the atmosphere and the potential to tie it to transmission lines. That’s reflective of the wind energy potential in Wyoming, and why there’s so much enthusiasm for it.”
“One of the hottest areas for wind development right now is the upper Midwest, with Minnesota leading the way,” he notes. “That’s due more to progressive public policy than to the wind resource.
“Texas is outpacing everyone, and they do have a good wind resource. They also have their own grid, so they have much better control over the transmission. In Wyoming we’re tied into an 11-state grid so it’s hard to get everyone to agree on where we should expand transmission.”
Either a transmission operator, like PacifiCorp, or a public entity like the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration, generally regulates energy transmission. “There are both public and private parties controlling transmission, and they all get together within the Western Systems Coordinating Council, which looks ahead to decide where the systems needs to be improved,” explains Smith.
“Right now wind energy can be produced at about six cents per kilowatt hour, and that’s only slightly higher than what it costs to produce power from coal-fired plants,” says Smith of wind energy’s efficiency. “It’s very close to being competitive, but it still needs the subsidy to mitigate risk.”
In addition to work with the WBC, IML has worked with the Campbell County Conservation District to confirm the quality of soil and water resources in the region and to monitor the impact of development within and outside their boundaries. According to their website, IML provides them assistance in defining sampling plans and performs water quality, trace metals, and macroinvertebrate analyses to be used in local, regional and national databases.
The lab has also worked with coalbed methane discharge water in the Powder River Basin. IML provides initial characterization of resident aquifer water, ongoing monitoring of water produced from CBM operations, and analyses of water for discharge, disposal or reinjection.