Interior OKs massive power line key for West’s renewables

By Jason Plautz | 04/12/2023 06:58 AM EDT

The final approval of the TransWest Express line closes a 15-year regulatory process and may help California meet clean energy targets.

Electric transmission lines on a sunny day in San Francisco.

Electric transmission lines in San Francisco on a sunny day. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Biden administration gave final approval to a $3 billion transmission line Tuesday that will carry electricity from the country’s largest onshore wind farm in Wyoming and help move more low-carbon energy into California.

The 732-mile TransWest Express Transmission Project is one of the largest transmission projects to reach final approval on the Western grid in decades. Once built, it will add 3,000 megawatts of transmission capacity and connect three planning regions across four states as the U.S. seeks to ship more renewable power to areas of high demand in the West.

The Bureau of Land Management issued a notice to proceed for the project Tuesday after some 15 years of permitting work, allowing independent transmission operator TransWest Express LLC to move ahead with construction. TransWest is a subsidiary of the Anschutz Corp.


Roxane Perruso, chief operating officer of TransWest, said in an interview that the “pretty darn exciting” move Tuesday marked a milestone for the Biden administration’s clean energy push, which will require expanding renewable generation in remote areas.

“Wyoming wind is literally the best onshore wind resource in the nation, and Wyoming is a state known as an energy exporter,” Perruso said. “Now Wyoming can export another energy resource to a market that needs it and expand the market for renewable energy in the West.”

The TransWest line will originate at a 600-turbine wind farm in Wyoming’s Carbon County owned by another Anschutz subsidiary.

The project will especially help California meet its goals to achieve a carbon-free electricity grid by 2045, according to observers. It will connect at a substation near Delta, Utah, linked to the Intermountain Power Project, the coal-fired power plant that provides power to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and other California utilities. That will allow TransWest to ship wind to Los Angeles using existing transmission connections, helping to replace power when Intermountain retires in 2025 and begins to convert to run on hydrogen.

The line will terminate at a substation controlled by Southern California Edison south of Las Vegas, Nev., another connection to the California market.

It will also become a participating transmission operator within the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), allowing it to share power in California. However, it will not add to CAISO’s transmission access charge, keeping costs lower.

The project is set to begin construction this year, with plans for the first stage to be finished in 2027. The full 3,000-megawatt line is expected to be completed by the end of 2028.

In a statement, BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said “public lands continue to play a vital role in advancing President [Joe] Biden’s goal of achieving a net-zero economy by 2050.”

“This large-scale transmission line will put people to work across our public lands and will help deliver clean, renewable energy,” Stone-Manning added.

A 'spider web of jurisdiction'

The project’s final approval comes 18 years after it was first initiated by the Arizona Public Service Co. Because the project crosses federal, state, county and private land, TransWest had to get approval from governments at each level. According to TransWest, the company did surveys on 40,000 acres of land to evaluate natural resource impacts and 60,000 acres of land for cultural impacts.

The project also hit several roadblocks from private landowners who did not want power lines crossing their property. The final holdout, the Cross Mountain Ranch in the northwest corner of Colorado, did not reach a deal with TransWest until the end of 2021.

Perruso said that the environmental permitting process required navigating a “spider web of jurisdiction” across multiple levels of government, a challenge for any project that covers long distances.

“To get transmission built like this, it’s going to have to be a national goal and be coordinated at the very top,” said Perruso.

According to a Department of Energy report this year, the country will need to grow its high-voltage transmission network by more than 50 percent by 2035 to meet projected levels of renewables (Greenwire, Feb. 24).

The Biden administration is exploring ways to speed up transmission, including by future studies that could identify key corridors where the administration could exercise its backstop authority to sidestep state opposition to new power line routes. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $15.5 billion for DOE to spend on transmission infrastructure.

Some clean energy advocates have said that permitting changes are a necessity to help transmission projects move through the environmental review process faster and help meet the Biden administration’s energy goals, but a permitting bill fell short in Congress last year. A Republican energy bill that included permitting changes passed the House last month, but is unlikely to move in the Senate (Greenwire, March 30).

Vijay Satyal, deputy director of regional energy markets for Western Resource Advocates, said the TransWest project showed the “perseverance and patience” required to build valuable transmission infrastructure in the U.S.

“This shows the need for more coordinated, project-specific planning,” Satyal said. “This should be a realization for policymakers and decisionmakers in Western states to think about coordinating planning and defining requirements. Can we reduce a 15-year process to something like 10 years or eight years or less?”