More than 50 renewable energy zones with the potential for large scale development have been identified in the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) region in a new study from the Western Governors’ Association and the Department of Energy.

With the need to move towards cleaner energy supply and the potential of the smart grid to accommodate large amounts of variable renewable generation, the way is opening to exploit sources of such energy that are both remote from the main load centers and of sufficient scale to support the construction of high voltage transmission lines for energy delivery.

Following an earlier study which identified several million megawatts of renewable energy potential in the WECC region, the WGA and the DOE launched the Western Renewable Energy Zones initiative in May 2008 to identify utility scale sources of solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass energy across the 11 states, two Canadian provinces and areas of northern Mexico. In this context “utility scale” was defined as the potential to develop 1,500 MW of solar or wind, or 500 MW of biomass, geothermal or hydropower generating capacity.The study identified almost 199,000 MW of renewable potential, comprised of 86,921 MW of solar, 95,219 MW of wind, 4,478 MW of geothermal, 8,452 MW of hydro and 3,720 MW of biomass.

The largest zones, with significant solar and wind potential, are in southern California, southern Arizona and south and central New Mexico. Zones with significant solar potential also occur in southeast Nevada and western Utah, while significant wind potential occurs on the WECC’s eastern border in Colorado and Wyoming up into central Montana, as well as in southern and northeast British Columbia. The main geothermal potential is in southern California and central Nevada and the main hydro potential is in southern Washington, British Columbia and eastern Alberta, while biomass – a secondary resource – occurs across all the states.

“We set and achieved an aggressive goal of bringing together in less than one year a large number of stakeholders to identify areas that have the most promising renewable energy resources,” commented WGA chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., governor of Utah. “Their efforts are an important first step in developing cost attractive renewable energy resources across the West and the high voltage transmission that will ensure this electricity can be delivered to demand centers.”

In addition to the zone identification, with the aim to facilitate the development of high voltage transmission connections, the study also developed a modeling tool for evaluating the relative economic attractiveness of costs of delivered renewable energy, including transmission costs, from specific renewable resource areas delivered to specific load centers.

The governors will now partner with utilities and the WECC to evaluate the transmission needs to move power from the preferred renewable energy zones. They will work to improve the integration of wildlife and environmental values in decisions on the development of generation and transmission associated with these renewable energy zones. Stakeholders have agreed to work with the WGA to coordinate purchasing from the desirable renewable energy zones to demand centers and to coordinate interstate cooperation for renewable energy generation and transmission.