TRANSMISSION:

BLM advances major Wyo.-to-Nev. project as Obama admin pushes renewable energy

The Bureau of Land Management today released the draft environmental review of a Wyoming-to-Nevada transmission line project that would allow wind-generated electricity in Wyoming to power homes as far away as California and could play a major role in meeting aggressive renewable energy goals outlined last week in President Obama's climate change strategy.

The multivolume draft environmental impact statement for the 725-mile-long TransWest Express transmission line marks a major milestone for a project that's been under federal review for years. TransWest Express is one of seven pilot projects the Obama administration has targeted to "quickly advance" through the federal permitting process.

The TransWest Express line would carry as much as 3,000 megawatts of electricity -- including wind-generated power from planned wind farms in Wyoming -- from a substation in Sinclair, Wyo., in the south-central part of the state, across portions of Colorado and Utah to a substation in southern Nevada, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas. The power line, once placed into service, would have the capacity to transmit enough electricity to power 1.8 million homes, according to BLM.

The draft EIS, which was published in today's Federal Register, is now open for a 90-day public comment period running through Sept. 30. BLM says it will hold 13 public hearings beginning next month in all four states to gather feedback on the draft EIS.

A final EIS and a record of decision authorizing the project are expected to be completed by the end of 2014, said Sharon Knowlton, BLM's project manager for the TransWest Express line.

BLM partnered with the Energy Department's Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) on the draft EIS. The power administration is jointly funding the TransWest Express project and is considering becoming a 50 percent co-owner of the power line when it is complete.

TransWest Express LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., has proposed building the project.

"This is a major milestone in the [National Environmental Policy Act] process, and we hope people read the Draft EIS and provide comments," Mark Gabriel, WAPA's administrator, said today in a statement. "We are here to help strengthen the energy highway by connecting communities with reliable power and renewable generation."

The transmission line is projected to carry electricity generated from the massive 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project that BLM has already approved in south-central Wyoming -- also proposed by Anschutz -- although the two projects are not connected, and either one could proceed and operate without the other.

One of the chief objectives of the line is to help spur development of wind farm projects to tap into the abundant wind energy resources in southern Wyoming by providing the transmission to move electricity to power-hungry load centers across the desert Southwest, including Las Vegas and as far away as San Diego.

Wyoming has about 1,400 MW of installed wind-generated capacity, good enough to rank 13th nationwide, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But the National Renewable Energy Lab estimates the state's wind resources stand at more than 550,000 MW -- 116 times the state's current electricity needs -- and eighth best in the nation.

Thus, the TransWest Express project dovetails with Obama's unveiling last week of a far-ranging plan to combat climate change in which he challenged the Interior Department to approve an additional 10,000 MW of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020.

That effort, the president said, would not only increase the amount of energy that the United States generates from clean energy sources and help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere but would also give American businesses a boost in the global race to lead the clean energy economy (E&E Daily, June 26).

"Wyoming's strong wind profile ideally complements both the renewable energy resources and the energy demand in California, Nevada and Arizona," Bill Miller, TransWest Express LLC's president and CEO, said in a statement. "By providing a direct link between these diverse regions, the TWE Project will allow Desert Southwest utilities to access and use Wyoming wind to help balance grid operations, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and provide competitively priced power to ratepayers."

Reducing siting concerns

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, it's easy for multistate projects like TransWest to become ensnared in a web of siting and permitting issues.

One of the biggest obstacles to TransWest Express is finding a route that causes the least impact to private property and environmentally sensitive landscapes. The power line would require a 250-foot-wide right of way within a 2-mile-wide transmission corridor along the entire length of the project.

BLM and the Western Area Power Administration divided the project route into four regions for analysis and have identified a preferred route within each of the four regions. BLM's "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS has as much of the line's route as possible following designated utility corridors, including the West-wide Energy Corridor that covers 6,000 miles of public lands in 11 Western states.

Most of the TransWest Express power line's pathway, or nearly 490 miles, would run across lands managed by BLM, the Forest Service or the Bureau of Reclamation. A total of 188 miles of the line's project route would cross private property, and 43 miles would cross state lands.

"The preferred alternative is being proposed in order to avoid sensitive areas and utilize the West-wide Energy Corridor as much as feasible," said Beverly Gorny, a BLM spokeswoman in Wyoming.

Other route alternatives under consideration, however, include some tribal lands and a small portion of National Park Service lands, including a section of Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. Another alternative would route the line across portions of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area along the Nevada-Arizona border, a move that would require an amendment to the recreation area's management plan, according to the draft EIS.

The various proposed routes could also take the power line across portions of five national forests in Utah, including the Dixie and Uinta national forests. The Forest Service will likely have to amend the land and resource management plans of the affected forests if any of those routes are eventually selected, according to the document.

In the southernmost of the four regions that constitute the power line route, BLM's preferred alternative would take the line across the agency-managed Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area east of Las Vegas. The 10,240-acre ISA is a popular hiking destination and includes Gypsum Cave, which BLM says holds some of the earliest evidence of human inhabitance in the western United States.

Running the line though Sunrise Mountain "may entail congressional legislation modifying the designation," according to the draft EIS.

Outside public lands, the project proponents would also have to negotiate right-of-way easements with the private property owners. BLM held numerous scoping meetings in all four states in early 2011 and received hundreds of comments, many from "landowners concerned about public health and safety issues and impacts to property values," according to the draft EIS.

Overall, BLM's preferred alternative "maximizes the use of appropriate existing designated utility corridors by locating within or paralleling areas of existing utility," thus minimizing the need for resource management plan revisions, according to the document. It also "avoids or minimizes" impacts to private residences or areas and "minimizes use of private lands," according to the draft EIS.

In southwest Utah, the preferred alternative would route the line around the Dixie National Forest, whereas the applicant proposal would route the line through it.

Avoiding environmental impacts

Siting the power line to avoid sensitive wildlife species and landscapes is also a major concern.

BLM has identified 11 federally listed endangered or threatened species, including the Mojave Desert tortoise, as well as three species being studied for endangered listing, including the greater sage grouse, along various points of the route.

Environmentalists have been concerned since public scoping was conducted in early 2011 that several routes under consideration by BLM would run the line through prime sage grouse breeding grounds in Wyoming and Utah, and Mojave Desert tortoise habitat in Nevada. And in Colorado and Utah, critics have complained the line would encroach on wilderness-quality BLM lands.

But conservation leaders who have followed the TransWest Express project say its proponents have demonstrated a willingness to work with them to avoid conflicts.

"I would say that the developer reached out early to the conservation community and has maintained a willingness to work with us to look at resource impacts and to have conversations about how to avoid impacts. We are very appreciative of that," said Erin Lieberman, the Defenders of Wildlife's Western policy adviser for renewable energy and wildlife in Sacramento, Calif.

Lieberman said she will spend the coming days closely reading the voluminous draft EIS. "For Defenders, we will be reviewing the draft EIS to see how BLM is addressing these resource impacts and that the avoidance of impacts is prioritized," she said.

One of the TransWest Express project's most immediate obstacles is avoiding impacts to the greater sage grouse, a candidate species for federal Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming is home to nearly half the world's remaining sage grouse, and federal and state leaders in Wyoming and across the bird's 11-state range have been working for years to preserve the grouse that remain, mostly by steering development away from sensitive habitat areas, such as breeding grounds called leks.

As with the siting of the line, BLM divided the project into four regions and studied environmental impacts and the best routes for each region.

For each segment, BLM and its regulatory partners outlined in the draft EIS the best management practices the project proponent should take, along with various mitigation measures that should be implemented.

BLM mitigation measures include identifying leks and nesting areas and implementing seasonal restrictions, as well as installing "anti-perching devices in high quality habitat" to avoid attracting grouse predators.

Still, there will be projected impacts to greater sage grouse under BLM's preferred alternative, particularly in the northern section of the line in Wyoming and northwest Colorado, according to the draft EIS.

BLM concludes in the draft EIS that "operation would result in potential mortality of individuals and avoidance of sagebrush habitats within the 2-mile transmission line corridor by local greater sage-grouse populations."

The preferred alternative for the second segment of the line, from northwest Colorado into Utah, would affect the highest number of active leks in the state, with 15 located within 4 miles of the line, according to the draft EIS.

Impacts to grouse in this section under BLM's preferred alternative "are likely to be higher" than the route proposed by TransWest Express because it crosses more leks "that have demonstrated increased attendance rates between 2003 and 2012," according to the document.

Overall, TransWest Express LLC "has taken into account greater sage-grouse habitat during the design phase of the Project and routed the transmission line around sensitive habitat types, to the [best] extent possible," according to the document, and any negative impacts are expected to be limited to habitat loss and fragmentation, rather than mortality.

As the line enters southern Utah and southeast Nevada, it begins to affect federally threatened Mojave Desert tortoise populations and habitat. Most of the potential tortoise impacts are in Clark and Lincoln counties in Nevada.

Again, the project proponents would identify and avoid tortoise habitat and implement mitigation measures approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service that would reduce impacts, according to the draft EIS.

Click here to read more about the TransWest Express project.