Backers of the proposed TransWest Express electricity transmission project are trying to accomplish something that has stymied developers in recent years: build a power line that crosses multiple state boundaries and bisects hundreds of miles of federal and private property.
The goal is to carry as much as 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity from planned wind farms in southwest Wyoming to large metropolitan areas in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, said Kara Choquette, a project spokeswoman. The line is expected to come into service in 2015.
But while the $3 billion TransWest Express line and a handful of other major transmission projects planned for Western states are critical to spurring development of renewable energy nationwide, developers of such lines are becoming increasingly tangled in a web of siting and permitting issues that threaten to slow or stop renewables development altogether.
And despite concerted efforts by TransWest Express LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., to address such concerns proactively, the project will not avoid hot-button issues as it proceeds from the early design stages to a more formalized plan that will be subject to scrutiny by state and federal agencies.
Environmentalists, for example, are concerned that several routes under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management would run the line through prime sage grouse breeding grounds in Wyoming and Utah, and desert tortoise habitat in Nevada. And in Colorado and Utah, the line would encroach on wilderness-quality BLM lands, advocates say, potentially placing the project at odds with the Interior Department's new "wild lands" policy that stresses conservation of the most pristine federal lands.
These competing interests are coming to play as BLM begins an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the project that should establish the best route for the 725-mile-long power line.
BLM, which is developing the EIS in partnership with the Energy Department's Western Area Power Administration, is accepting public scoping comments on the project through April 4. Three public forums this week in Wyoming are the last of 23 hearings held in the four states the line would cross.
"We'd like to work together to find ways to make this work," said Mike Chiropolos, the lands program director for Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo.
"The long-term solution to our energy issues are clean energy solutions," he added. "The project proponents here are doing a good job at being open-minded, but there's going to be some tough choices and trade-offs associated with this project."
Sharon Knowlton, the BLM project manager overseeing the project, said the agency and TransWest Express are trying wherever possible to route the line along existing transmission corridors and within the federally designated West-wide Energy Corridor -- a 6,000-mile right-of-way for electricity, oil, natural gas and hydrogen projects that crosses federal lands in 11 states.
While 495 miles of the TransWest route would cross lands managed by BLM, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, an estimated 230 miles would bisect private land outside the energy corridor, Knowlton said.
"You just cannot get from Wyoming to southern Nevada without crossing some sensitive areas," she said. "Our job is to make wise decisions and attempt to impact resources where we can mitigate."
The 600-kilovolt line, to be supported by steel-lattice towers standing as high as 180 feet, would be the second-largest direct current power line in the country. At full capacity, the line is expected to carry enough electricity to meet growing power demand as far away as San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
At its northern end, the line is expected to provide a major boon to wind power development in rural south-central Wyoming by providing a sure-fire means to move wind power to major load centers.
Among the beneficiaries would be the proposed 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Carbon County, Wyo., which is projected to generate enough electricity to power about 800,000 homes. The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, currently under review by BLM, is also being spearheaded by Anschutz Corp.
Wyoming ranks 10th nationwide for total installed wind power capacity at 1,400 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But the state's generation potential is significantly higher, at an estimated 7,800 megawatts -- enough to power 3.1 million homes.
"A very large number of projects out there are trying to get their power out on the grid and the transmission capacity is just not there right now," said Michael Goggin, AWEA's manager of transmission policy in Washington, D.C.
The TransWest project will help resolve that issue, said Choquette, the company spokeswoman. "Wyoming has such tremendous wind energy resources," she said, "but that wind is going to go to waste if we don't get it to the people who need it."
Sage grouse and wild lands
One of TransWest's most immediate development obstacles is the greater sage grouse, a candidate species for federal Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming is home to about half of the world's remaining sage grouse, and federal and state leaders in Wyoming and neighboring states have worked tirelessly to preserve those that remain, mostly by steering development away from the most sensitive habitat areas.
Former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who left office in January, last year issued an executive order charting out a transmission corridor to aid in the siting of power lines away from state-designated "core sage grouse areas" (Land Letter, Aug. 26, 2010).
The order could affect TransWest Express and several other large transmission line projects, including the $2 billion Gateway West project proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power. That line, which has been stalled in the permitting process for several years, would stretch 1,150 miles across southern Wyoming and Idaho and carry as much as 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind power to customers in California and Nevada.
Choquette said TransWest Express is developing a conservation plan for sage grouse and is working on other conservation measures to reduce or mitigate impacts to other sensitive species, including raptors. BLM's Knowlton said sage grouse preservation would be addressed in the EIS for the project.
The EIS also will examine the project's impact to wilderness-quality lands and the issue of compliance with the new wild lands policy, Knowlton said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Dec. 22, 2010, executive order instructed BLM field offices to identify parcels with wilderness characteristics and to consider designating them as wild lands that are off-limits to development. BLM last month issued final guidance documents on the wild lands order that, among other things, instruct field managers to place a high priority on the preservation of lands with wilderness characteristics.
Knowlton said the agency does not yet know how much potential wilderness areas could be impacted.
But environmental groups who have studied the proposed route alternatives say there are a number of areas with wilderness-quality lands that could be impacted by the line.
David Garbett, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Salt Lake City, said the leading proposal under consideration would at least "clip" areas being considered for wilderness or that already are protected, including the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area on the state's southwest side that contains good desert tortoise habitat. Other alternatives would also bisect areas with wilderness characteristics, Garbett said.
"How exactly the wild lands issue will play out remains to be seen," he said.
Sasha Nelson, northwest organizer with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said that during a recent public meeting she pointed to a map showing how one of the proposed routes would take the power line through a wilderness study area (WSA) in northwest Colorado.
Nelson said officials with both BLM and the company were surprised by the WSA and pledged to avoid that area. While Nelson said she was encouraged by planners' commitments to avoid the area, she was "concerned they didn't already know it was there."
She said her group wants BLM to consider routing the power line out of Colorado altogether. But even if they do not, Nelson said she believes TransWest Express officials are "truly sincere about taking on our concerns."
She added: "It seems like everybody is really willing to work collaboratively to promote green, renewable energy. We're trying to provide the best information to them we can, and not just saying, 'No,' but rather, 'Here's the best place to put the line.' "
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.