Phil Anschutz — who has made money out of everything from a well explosion to a failing railroad — is looking to wager $9 billion on the fierce winds of Wyoming.

Anschutz's Power Company of Wyoming is seeking to build the nation's largest wind farm and then ship the power to California over a 725-mile transmission line, the longest to be built in decades.

California is the West's biggest renewable-energy market and a vital one for the project. The problem is that officials there say they don't want Anschutz's electricity.

Gov. Jerry Brown has voiced a strong preference for in-state renewable-energy projects, and California utility executives say they can meet renewable- energy requirements with projects close to home.

Bill Miller, Power Company of Wyoming chief executive, stands on a ridge at Anschutz Corp.’s Overland Trail Cattle Ranch, a few miles south of
Bill Miller, Power Company of Wyoming chief executive, stands on a ridge at Anschutz Corp.'s Overland Trail Cattle Ranch, a few miles south of Rawlins, where a wind farm might be built. (Associated Press file)

"A couple of years ago it looked to us that the future was going to be large wind projects beyond Nevada, but not now," said Matt Burkhart, a San Diego Gas and Electric vice president.

Six renewable-energy projects are going up within driving distance of the utility's headquarters, he said.

That has not deterred the 73-year-old Denver billionaire, who has made invention and shifting strategy his hallmarks.

Just a few years ago, Anschutz put his Wyoming property — the 320,000-acre Overland Trail Cattle Ranch near Rawlins — up for sale with an asking price of $45 million. The ranch was owned by Anschutz Exploration Co., an oil and gas driller.

"Then we saw an opportunity to develop a large infrastructure project to tap a new market," said Bill Miller, who went from head of the drilling company to the wind company's chief executive officer.

Massive project

That is "vintage Anschutz," said Martin Fridson, who featured the businessman in his book, "How to Be a Billionaire." "Again and again he has extricated himself from situations that appeared hopeless by heading off in a surprising new direction."

Fridson pointed to the 1967 Wyoming gas-well fire that Anschutz lacked the cash to fight and which almost ruined him.

Anschutz, whose fortune Forbes magazine now estimates at $7.6 billion, sold Universal Studios the rights to film the inferno for $100,000 and ended up making a profit.

"The usual outcome has been an extraordinary increase in his wealth," Fridson said, "and I wouldn't bet against him this time."

The current Wyoming project, however, is no simple gas well. The Sierra Madre and Chokecherry Wind Project would put 1,000 wind turbines on 2,000 acres at a cost of up to $6 billion.

The TransWest power line, a $3 billion project, would carry the wind farm's 3,000 megawatts of power across four states to a point south of Las Vegas, where it could connect with the California power grid.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Anschutz is no stranger in California. The Anschutz Entertainment Group, now up for sale, has been a major real estate developer in Los Angeles and owner of sports teams.

Even with the sale of the entertainment company, Anschutz continues to pursue plans for a new stadium and NFL team in Los Angeles.

To win over unions, which are strong in California, the wind company entered into partner agreements for jobs with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Wyoming officials are making the rounds in California with a slide presentation showing that Wyoming wind is a good deal for the state.

They've met with the governor's office, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission.

"All the states are bent on developing their own renewable power, and you can't blame them for that," said Loyd Drain, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. "But the good Lord did not make the wind blow the same everywhere."

Many large-scale interstate renewable-energy projects proposed in the last few years probably will not be built, said Doug Larson, executive director of the Western Interstate Energy Board, a policy forum for Western states and Canadian provinces.

The California Energy Commission projects that for the next 10 years out-of-state renewable energy will come from close-by Arizona, Nevada and the Northwest.

Larson, however, doesn't count out the Anschutz project. "If there is one that has potential legs, it is this one," he said. "They have the deep pockets. They have a good wind resource. They just need customers."

Federal support

The wind project received initial federal Bureau of Land Management approval in October. About half the turbines will be on public land.

Studies on specific turbine sites should be completed by the end of 2013 and, pending permits, initial work on roads and infrastructure would begin in 2014, Miller said.

The TransWest power-line project also has gained initial federal support, becoming one of seven in the nation selected for fast-track federal permitting.

While the 600-kilovolt line will run primarily over public land, there are spots where it crosses state and private property. "We are trying to secure easements and stay in existing pipeline and transmission corridors," Miller said.

To stem power loss, the line is direct current and has no connections in the four states.

At a hearing last year, Utah residents expressed frustration that the project provides no benefit to the state. In Wyoming, the project has garnered criticism from environmental groups.

"This is the biggest project anyone has seen, and it is right on key sage grouse habitat and an area for golden eagles," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie.

The BLM estimates that 46 to 64 eagles could be killed annually by the turbines, Molvar said.

To win final approval from the BLM, the wind company must show that the specific turbine sites will not adversely impact wildlife. It has even hired its own biologists.

"They've done some good work," Molvar said, "but the project is simply too big not to have an impact."

Targeting California

Even with uncertainties, the project continues to draw market interest. "We've had interest from a number of investors," Miller said. "I don't think that will be a problem."

The problem remains selling into California, which will account for two-thirds of the West's renewable energy demand between 2010 and 2020, according to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which oversees regional electricity reliability.

That is being driven by a requirement that the state's largest utilities supply 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

"We think we can make a case that we are cost-competitive for California," Miller said

While calling the Anschutz wind company "top-notch," Michael O'Sullivan, a vice president with NextEra Energy Resources, one of the nation's largest wind-farm developers, said, "They are facing project-on-project risk. "

"It will be like sinking a 140-yard putt," O'Sullivan said.

Miller chuckled at the image. "I don't disagree," he said. "But one thing we are good at is managing risk, and sometimes we sink a long putt."

Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912, mjaffe@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bymarkjaffe

The varied businesses of Phil Anschutz

Oilman: Anschutz has largely moved out of oil and gas, where he made an early fortune. Anschutz Exploration Corp. still has active projects in several states. In 2010 Anschutz sold 500,000 leases in Pennsylvania for an undisclosed sum that analysts estimated was in the billions of dollars.

Railroad magnate: Anschutz bought the the flagging Rio Grande and Southern Pacific railroads, sold $2 billion in Southern Pacific land and used the money to upgrade the lines. In 1996 he sold the railroad to Union Pacific for $5.4 billion.

Telecom investor: Anschutz began laying fiber-optic cable in Southern Pacific rights of way, and that became the basis for Qwest Communications, which he took public in 1997. Qwest later acquired US West; Anschutz retired as a director in 2006 and sold his shares.

Movie theater operator: In 2001, Anschutz bought the debt of Regal Cinemas, Edwards Cinemas and United Artist Theater Co. and created Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater chain.

Entertainment entrepreneur: The Anschutz Entertainment Group, built up in the last 15 years, is a concert promoter, film producer and owner of sports teams and venues, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the Target Center in Minneapolis. The group was put up for sale in September and is expected to fetch up to $10 billion.