Whether North America’s largest wind power project gets off the ground may rest with President Trump, a man who has railed against wind turbines for killing birds and whose top energy priority is boosting the coal industry.
At issue is whether Trump will tell a federal utility to avoid becoming financially involved in a 700-mile transmission line carrying power from a proposed wind farm in Wyoming with 1,000 turbines to Southern California. The public utility, the Western Area Power Administration, is in negotiations with the project developers.
It’s a paradox that the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, and its accompanying TransWest Express transmission line, could eventually become operational under Trump, a champion of fossil fuels.
Then again, it also underscores how ingrained renewable energy has become across the political spectrum, even in some conservative strongholds. The massive wind project is located in a former coal-mining area in Wyoming named Carbon County.
For now, the transmission line carrying all that proposed power to California power markets appears poised to be partially funded by the Trump administration.
“We have received no indication from any of the federal agencies that we work with … that they’re not at this point interested in participating in the project,” TransWest Express LLC CEO Bill Miller said. “The Trump administration I believe sincerely wants to develop large infrastructure projects that put a lot of people to work. We’re one of the better examples of that.”
Miller’s point highlights a new truth about climate change in the Trump era – while clean energy certainly helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the way to this White House’s heart is through jobs provided by those energy sources.
So that’s what Miller and the project’s supporters are talking about. And it’s in line with the Trump administration’s desire to spark a $1 trillion infrastructure spending spree.
The developers are also focused on keeping the White House engaged in the project. Without the federal government’s backing through WAPA, TransWest Express would lack the use of eminent domain, a major tool that Trump often relied on in his past life as a real estate mogul. It’s the ability to take ownership of private land for public use.
One of the biggest challenges related to building the TransWest Express transmission line could be traversing 206 miles of private land. The developer recently began negotiations with some of the 460 private landowners along that stretch. Officials with TransWest Express said eminent domain is a last resort, but lacking the threat of it could stymie property acquisition.
“Not everybody is 100 percent receptive, they never are,” Miller said of convincing private landowners to offer access. “There is no huge organization or organized effort standing in the way of the project, but each individual and each parcel has its challenges.”
Critics of the Trump administration are watching the outcome closely. They see the administration’s decision about whether to back the transmission line as a kind of litmus test. Is Trump so focused on fossil fuels that he’ll scrap a large renewable energy project that stands to create jobs in a red state?
In truth, Trump inherited it from President Obama, whose administration finalized environmental reviews for the first phase of Chokecherry and Sierra Madre and TransWest Express in the waning days of his presidency.
Perhaps ironically, Chokecherry and Sierra Madre is still waiting for a final permit to allow the incidental killing of a certain number of eagles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conditionally approved that permit, provided that the Power Company of Wyoming LLC, the wind farm’s developer, could meet certain conditions (E&E News PM, Jan. 18).
For now, the idea that Trump might direct his administration to disassociate itself from the transmission project is quiet chatter among renewable power advocates.
“I have the delegated authority on this, but obviously things can change,” said WAPA CEO Mark Gabriel. “But I’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”
The White House has promoted the jobs benefits of the project rather than championing its generation of renewable power. In a June blog post, it touted the 1,035 to 1,550 estimated jobs the transmission project would bring.
“As the steward for America’s public lands, Interior’s infrastructure projects help millions of visitors experience our national treasures, provide water to the West and support American jobs,” the White House said in the post about six critical infrastructure projects at Interior.
Federal jobs numbers released this week also point to wind energy as a growing field. Wind turbine technicians are expected to be the second-fastest growth sector – behind solar installers – between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS projected a 96 percent increase in turbine technicians, up to 11,300 in the field.
The fact that this project is popular in Wyoming is also a plus. Republican Gov. Matt Mead has long backed it; oil and gas mogul Phil Anschutz, who owns the wind and transmission projects, is a major Republican donor.
The project also has a big footprint in the nation’s capital. TransWest Express has spent $950,000 on lobbying by Cassidy & Associates since 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But the project is facing other hurdles that, in part, are a reflection of broader trends in the electricity market that the Trump administration has largely ignored.
Much of that has to do with solar.
The power source has bloomed across the desert southwest. Power companies that bundle electricity sources and sell directly to customers are challenging big electric utilities. In turn, those utilities are increasingly wary about inking 20- to 30-year contracts to take wind power from Wyoming as their service base dwindles. Utilities are now making their own investments in solar, as well.
That means California already has more renewable power than it needs to meet its renewable portfolio standard. That makes the Wyoming wind project, and its generation, less attractive.
Building electric transmission, especially on the scale envisioned by TransWest Express, is tremendously difficult in the United States. People who get passed over along the construction route don’t want the intrusion. They also don’t want to get stuck with part of its capital costs through the rates they pay. The financial risks are bigger as wind power faces more competition from falling solar prices.
“WAPA would like to see the line built, they just don’t want to have to pay for as much of it,” Frank Wolak, who directs Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development and chairs the California Independent System Operator’s market surveillance committee, said in an email. “The fall in the price of utility scale solar is certainly another factor.”
WAPA, the federal utility, still plans to partner with TransWest Express in some fashion, though Gabriel, WAPA’s CEO, said electricity market trends have dampened interest. WAPA is now negotiating with TransWest Express to sign up for a smaller share of the transmission line’s capacity than originally planned.
“Clearly market dynamics have changed, and I would just describe it as the uncertainty,” Gabriel said.
Whereas the Trump administration views energy as a battlefield between legacy fossil fuel power plants like coal and newer sources like wind and solar, those with an ear to the ground know markets are trending inexorably in one direction.
“Yes, they’re different than the last administration when it comes to renewable energy,” said Miller, CEO of TransWest Express. “However, at the same time, the markets that are going to be coming available and are available are for renewable energy projects. The desert Southwest has made their decision about where they’re going with renewable energy supply.”
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