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Energy Blend: Status of controversial 725-mile super highway for wind power unknown for Moffat County landowners

Since receiving federal approval in December, the TransWest Express Transmission Project still has several hurdles to clear before construction on the 725-mile line can begin.

Amid tough economic times for Moffat County, the project promises a short-term boom of construction jobs and much-needed property tax revenues – to the tune of between $600,000 to $900,000, annually – once the line is up and running, according to a fact sheet from TransWest.

But when, exactly, that will occur depends upon how quickly TransWest Express, LLC, a subsidiary of The Anschutz Corporation, can secure rights-of-way across state and private lands in the 14 counties and four states it crosses.

With federal permitting already completed – accounting for about two thirds of the route – the process is underway to permit the remainder of the route, according to TransWest Director of Communications Kara Choquette.

“We anticipate construction activities beginning in late 2018 to 2019 and taking two to three years to complete,” she said in an email.

A kind of super highway for wind power, the 3,000-megawatt capacity, direct current line will traverse Moffat County to deliver Wyoming wind power to the Las Vegas area, servicing markets in Nevada, California and Arizona.

About 15 miles of the line’s 90-mile course through the county lies on private lands, and some of the estimated 20 landowners affected in western Moffat County are not too keen on the project.

“People in Maybell don’t want it,” said landowner Lyn McCormick, whose 470 acres near Cross Mountain lie in the path of the transmission line. “They don’t want it coming through here.”

TransWest Vice President of Land and Environmental Affairs Garry Miller projected in February that negotiations with landowners would begin this year, though McCormick said she has yet to hear anything.

But, as Moffat County commissioners work to balance their budget under the strain of a $2.1 million decline in property tax revenues since 2012, the prospect of new revenues from TransWest is good news for them, even if it’s still years down the road.

“They should be a reliable source of revenue for our county, once they’ve got power running through those lines,” said Moffat County Assessor Chuck Cobb.

But, permitting isn’t the only thing left to do before the project can break ground.

“They have to do cultural surveys, come up with mitigation plans. … There’s a bunch of stuff to do before a notice to proceed, so I think that 2018 timeline would be pretty optimistic,” said Luke Schafer, Western Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, who has followed the project closely.

Whether possible changes to the Bureau of Land Management’s sage grouse conservation plans could affect the project also remains to be seen, as the line is slated to pass through 28 miles of priority sage grouse habitat and 55 mile of general habitat in Moffat County, according to the BLM’s Record of Decision.

Nonetheless, the project has the interest of the Western Area Power Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, which is looking to partner with TransWest and own a portion of the project, Choquette said. The decision is expected to be finalized in 2018.

Construction of access roads for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in southern Wyoming began in 2016. The two-phase, 1,000-turbine project will be the largest wind farm in the country.