I attended the National Clean Energy Summit 4.0 in Las Vegas and had the chance to talk with the developers of one of the most ambitious renewable energy projects in the United States — the TransWest Express (TWE) Transmission & Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project led by Anschutz Corporation.

The proposed roughly $7-8 billion project would deliver wind power generated by 1,000 2-3 megawatt (MW) turbines located in the gusty and ironically named Carbon Country, Wyoming, via a new super DC (direct current) transmission line to a hub in southern Nevada. If successful, it would produce 9 million MWh's (megawatt-hours)* of zero-carbon, zero-pollution electricity per year — roughly enough to power the entire city of Los Angeles ... forever. No mining. No drilling. No pollution. Just clean energy from a free resource.

The cost per MWh (about $80) would be significantly lower than existing coal power (about $90) and that is without any federal or state renewable subsidies. So for those of your skeptical about my last post in which I posited that wind power would soon be cheaper than coal, this project makes it a reality.

DWE + Sierra Madre would also create as many as 18,000 jobs (12,688 in the wind farm and 5,000+ in the transmission project) helping the U.S. to regain its lost foothold in two important growth industries (wind power and next generation energy transmission) while capitalizing on what some are calling a renewable "Kuwait" for America — a pocket of Class 7-10 winds that are unrivaled in the world. The new transmission line would also help to bolster the stability of the entire western electric grid.

What a contrast with the Keystone XL pipeline! This proposed $7-8 billion project, expected to hit President Obama's desk soon for approval, would largely benefit one foreign company (TransCanada), forcing the U.S. to pay a premium for oil that no one else wants because it is so expensive and so "heavy," requiring much more refinement than typical oil.

It would criss-cross some of the most important waterways in North America, including the Missouri River and the Ogallala Aquifer (which supplies 30 percent of the nation's agricultural freshwater) putting millions of people in harm's way. Astonishingly, the State Department recently found no evidence of risk for the proposed project despite the fact that the first Keystone pipeline has had a record 12 spills since it began operation in 2010. 

The two often cited benefits of Keystone XL is that it is a job creator and would help us get off foreign oil. TransCanada's job projections (500,000 ... really??) have been debunked by many people. The State Dept. puts it at something closer to 4,000-5,000. Regarding foreign oil, Kestone XL will indeed supply about 510,000 extra barrels of crude per day which sounds like a lot until you realize that this would only meet about 2.5 percent of our daily needs ... and at what cost?

A barrel of tar sands oil costs about $30 to produce (versus about $5 for a barrel of Saudi oil). And beyond the nearly incomprehensible environmental devastation it causes — 65 square miles of toxic tailings posts, cleared boreal forests, and polluted rivers — it is incredibly resource-intensive. Tar sands production uses three barrels of freshwater for every one barrel of oil produced and requires enough natural gas to heat 3 million Canadian homes, making it four times more carbon polluting than regular oil (PDF).

And for those of you who say I'm comparing apples and oranges — oil barrels and kilowatt-hours — I have this to say. Energy is energy, and wind power right now has become a viable alternative for powering our vehicles. In the lobby of NCES sat the brand new Coda sedan (I saw the prototype in China and blogged about it last year). It looks just like a Camry but goes up to 150 miles on a single 34 kWh charge. A typical U.S. driver would charge her Coda 100 times in a year (3.4 MWh's total), which means that the DWE + Sierra wind project could theoretically power about 2.9 million cars* — roughly the same as could be fueled by the Keystone XL pipeline.**

It really does feel like a line has been drawn in the tarry sand. Our nation faces a choice. Which way do we want to go? Nearly 600 people have been arrested protesting the proposed Keystone XL (and many more have signed up). They're clear about what they want for the future of our country. How do you feel about it?

Also on MNN:

*9.8 million MWh's: 2.5 MW per turbine x 365 days x 24 hrs x 45% = 9,855 MWh's x 1000 = 9.8 million MWh's. There would be transmission losses but those would be greatly reduced by the new DWE line, so I do not factor those losses in here. A Coda sedan requires 3.4 MWh's per year so 2.9 million cars

** 3 million cars: 510,000 barrels x 365 days x 19.5 gallons gasoline per barrel = 3.6 billion gallons gas. The crude coming from Alberta Tar sands has far lower productivity so I assume here about 50% normal production or roughly 10 gallons per barrel, yielding 1.8 billion gallons of refined gas per year. A typical car at 20 MPG averaging cars and light trucks (PDF) going 12,000 miles per year = 600 gallons per year for the average driver. 1.8 billion/600 = 3 million cars. Jet and diesel fuel production are not included in these calculations.

How would you spend $7 billion?
Two proposed energy projects (each with a $7 billion price tag) present two very different directions for America's future. Which would you choose?