Utah’s Complete Renewable Energy Portfolio

About 165 miles south of Salt Lake City, 80-foot blades from 165 wind turbines spin above the desert near the railroad town of Milford.

Off in the distance, steam from the Blundell geothermal plant billows into the air. South of Milford, two methane digesters convert hog manure from Circle 4 farms into electricity. Across the county, hydroelectric plants in the Beaver Mountains generate electricity for the City of Beaver, one of the state’s first cities to be electrified. South of Milford, the recent permitting of four solar farms by First Wind will complete the county’s renewable energy portfolio. Then, Beaver County will be the only location in the nation, and perhaps the world, where five different types of renewable energy are commercially produced within a 50-mile radius of each other.

More than 100 years ago, prospectors scoured the mountains and deserts of Beaver County looking for gold, silver and other metals. Wild mining towns like Frisco boomed west of Milford, only to evaporate into the desert when mining went bust a decade later. Today, renewable energy developments are flourishing where mining operations failed. The resources are delightfully more plentiful than anyone could ever imagine, and now, modern-day prospectors are scouring the desert for additional renewable energy locations.

“It’s a unique situation not found anywhere else in the United States or overseas, to my knowledge,” says Andy Swapp, founder of the Southwest Utah Renewable Energy Center, which offers renewable energy training in Milford. As a self-described “old-fashioned shop teacher” at Milford High School, Swapp wanted to be sure the claim was accurate, so he wrote to the U.S. Department of Energy to ask if there were any other locations in the United States with similar renewable energy portfolios. About a month later he received a response from Dr. Christopher Avery, a science and technology policy fellow in the DOE. “Given the vast renewable power resource potential out west, I am skeptical Milford is the only place with all five of those power technologies collocated,” Avery noted. “That said, I don’t see any evidence you are wrong. And even if there are other sites, I am certain they would be relatively rare. So regardless, you should absolutely be bragging about it.”

And so he does. Swapp promoted Beaver County’s claim to renewable energy fame at the Milford Renewable Energy Fair in April. But growth of renewable energy in the county began quite my accident. Originally intended to power mining operations, hydro power stations were built in the mountains east of Beaver. Today, the combined generating capacity for all three of the stations is approximately 9,200,000 kilowatt hours–enough to power 6,000 homes and businesses. Another hydro power station in the foothills west of Milford collects enough spring water to run a hydro turbine that has taken the Wah Wah Ranch and its two homes, outbuildings and two center-pivot irrigation systems off of the grid.

The potential for geothermal in the county was first documented by the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition in the late 1700s, when Father Escalante traveled through present-day Beaver County. The first geothermal plant in Utah, Blundell Plant 1, is a 34-megawatt facility is owned by Rocky Mountain Power. That project earned the U.S. Department of Energy’s innovation award in 1984 for being the first commercially-produced geothermal power plant outside of California. In 2007, Rocky Mountain Power brought Blundell 2 online. It is an 11-megawatt binary bottoming-cycle unit.

In recent years, two more geothermal facilities have come online through the cooperation of public and private entities. Thermo No. 1, located near Milford and owned by Cyrq Energy, is an operating binary geothermal power plant located on 1,120 acres of property leased from School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and a private property owner. The facility began commercial operations in 2009 and is a 10.3-megawatt rated, zero-emissions, water cooled geothermal power plant. The power generated at Thermo No. 1 is sold to the City of Anaheim. Thermo No. 1 employs nine full-time employees, including seven local residents.

Another geothermal plant, located at Cove Fort, is owned by Enel Green Power North America (EGP-NA). The site overlaps into Beaver and Millard Counties. The installed capacity of the new binary cycle geothermal power plant in Cove Fort is 25 megawatts.

Meanwhile, First Wind’s Milford Wind farm stretches through the desert just north of Milford. The combined 306-megawatt facilities were developed in two phases and make up the largest operational utility-scale wind farm in Utah. Output from the two operational phases provides power for about 64,000 Southern California homes under normal operating conditions, while avoiding 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions that would result from conventional regional generation sources in a typical year.

Phase 1, completed in November of 2009, is situated predominantly in Beaver County and consists of 97 operational wind turbines–a mix of 1.5-megawatt and 2.5-megawatt machines–with a maximum capacity of 204 megawatts. The second phase of the project, completed in 2011, lies mostly in Millard County. It added 102 megawatts from 68 turbines. In order to transmit power to Southern California, First Wind built an 88-mile transmission line that connects the wind turbines with the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta and then with the Southern Transmission System towards the Los Angeles metro area.

While First Wind is exploring future development opportunities for harnessing the excellent wind resource in the extensive Milford Valley, the company is also planning to develop four solar farms in Beaver County and three solar farms in nearby Iron County. The recently-permitted solar farms will produce approximately three megawatts each for a total of 21 megawatts.

In 2012, Circle 4 Farms and Alpental Energy Partners entered into a strategic partnership to take hog manure from Circle 4 Farms near Milford and convert it into electrical energy. Now complete, that project converts enough electricity from the hog manure to power about 3,000 homes and businesses.

Swapp says development of First Wind’s solar farms completes the renewable energy portfolio and places Beaver County at the top of the renewable energy radar. “Nationally, Utah gets a bad rap for not producing much renewable energy, and yet we are the only state that has five different renewable energy developments next to each other, and they are all growing rapidly,” he adds.

To be sure, the state’s renewable energy portfolio is growing. Thirteen potential geothermal projects are in varying stages of development in the state, according to the Geothermal Energy Association. And other solar, wind and biomass projects are adding to the diversity.

“We live in a commodity-rich state, an incredible state,” says Swapp. “It is indisputable that Utah is a major contender in the renewable energy market and a great place to do business.”