In Walsh, a town of 500 people in southeastern Colorado, eagles are the mascot for the high school’s six-man football team. That’s appropriate. This is a land of wind, strong and steady. Wind an eagle might like.
And wind that could generate massive amounts of electricity—if only high-voltage transmission existed that could convey it to demand centers along the Front Range and other locations across Colorado.
Fred Hefley has been waiting for a long time for those transmission lines to arrive. He and his wife, Kay Lynn, live in Walsh.
The Hefleys grow corn irrigated with water from the underlying Ogallala aquifer and dryland sorghum and wheat on their 6,000 acres southeast of Walsh. From their farm it’s a short drive to Kansas. It’s not much farther to Oklahoma, crossing one branch of the Santa Fe Trail, the most direct branch, along the way.
The most direct route from Walsh to Denver is four and a half hours by U.S. 287. It’s a highway busy with trucks ferrying freight from the port at Houston to the nation’s midsection. The Hefleys and many of their neighbors in Baca County would also like to ship electrons to Denver.
Colorado Green got the Hefleys and their neighbors excited. The wind farm, Colorado’s first, was the nation’s fifth largest when production from the 108 turbines began in 2003. It’s located halfway between Springfield and Lamar. Wind developers were also checking out Baca County. Iberdrola, one of the companies, put up five towers, to test the steadiness and velocity of the wind. Hefley says representatives ranked the wind resource as second best in the country.
A major wind developer leased 42,000 acres of farms and pastures.
Maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show Colorado’s southeastern corner as a blob of red for annual average wind speeds at 30 meters. At 80 meters above ground, the blob broadens, and turns purple.
Nate Blair, manager of the distribution system and storage analysis group at NREL, used a tool called wind prospector to examine the wind potential for Baca County. Crunching the numbers using several common-sense assumptions, he came up with 15 gigawatts of potential wind from Baca County.
“Now, much of that might not be able to be built based on towns, roads, private land ownership, etc., so a smaller number is more viable,” he told Big Pivots by e-mail.
The 15 gigawatts of potential in Baca County compares with Colorado’s total summer 16,017 megawatts generating capacity as of 2017 from all of its coal plants, gas plants, wind farms, and other energy sources. That’s 16.017 gigawatts. In other words, wind-generated electricity from Baca County alone nearly could equal the current annual peak demand in Colorado.
But it’s a renewable energy stranded by absence of transmission. The developer who had leased the 42,000 acres let the agreements lapse in 2012.
Reason for hope
Now, there’s renewed hope in Baca County. A wind developer is poking around again. There’s talk about a larger capacity 345-kilowatt line between Lamar and Burlington, along the state’s eastern edge. And in the background of all utility planning are the targets identified by a 2019 Colorado law for decarbonization of the state’s economy, first 50% by 2030 and then 90% by mid-century. As Colorado drives toward those long-reach goals, it must develop far more renewable energy. It’s not enough to replace retiring coal plants. New appetites for electricity will be created by electrification of transportation and replacement of natural gas in heating of buildings.
That would seem to put the state’s best wind resources in one of its least populated sections within closer reach of urban markets.
Until last week, there was also a proposed law that sought to nudge utilities into building transmission into renewables-rich zones of Colorado.
SB 20-190 proposed to make Colorado’s carbon reduction goals the center of transmission planning by directing the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to approve utilities’ applications to build new transmission if the PUC found the new facilities would assist the utilities in meeting the clean energy goals.
“This is trying to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of transmission that has plagued Colorado for years,” says Mark Detsky, an attorney for the Colorado Independent Energy Association, in an interview in March, soon after the bill had been introduced.
“Baca County is the poster child for having amazing wind resources but no transmission,” adds Detsky. “The idea (of the law) is that this would allow the best bids, the best projects to drive transmission decisions.”
Just how much more electricity will be needed remains unclear. Black Hills Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and Xcel Energy all must submit plans that estimate generation needs as electrification use grows for transportation and for heating of buildings.
Xcel Energy supplies more than 60% of electricity in Colorado, followed by Tri-State and Black Hills. Municipal providers such as Platte River Power Authority and Colorado Springs Utilities are exempt from regulation.
Without mentioning Baca County, the bill proposed to shift “the state away from inefficient, radial transmission development” to one that interconnects renewable resources. Existing transmission generally radiates from fossil fuel plants.
To this end, SB 20-190 would have required the PUC to “complete a review of existing and potential additional energy resource zones for renewable resources generation development areas within Colorado.” It proposed to also give the PUC authority to merge the planning by different utilities, to couple transmission planning with resource planning in a more wholistic fashion.
One possible result: more dense concentrations of development of renewables, say 500 megawatts of new wind and solar generation in one broad cluster enabled by new transmission as opposed to, say five clusters of 100 megawatts across eastern Colorado.
When wind was a curse
Wind was Baca County’s curse in the 1930s. It was within the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. When Timothy Egan came through Denver in early 2007 to promote his book “The Worst Hard Time,” he told me that southeastern Colorado provided him among his best material.
Hefley moved to Walsh in 1971 after graduating from high school in Texas. The community by then had recovered from the Dust Bowl and even boomed growing broom corn. It had two cafes and an 11-boy football team. It was, relatively speaking, thriving.
Enrollment at Walsh High School has declined since then. Seven boys turned out for the 6-man football team last fall. Farm sizes have grown in the last 50 years, and mechanization requires fewer people. The cafes have closed, and the grocery store was saved by creation of a community cooperative. There’s still a liquor store, too. Like many of the small towns in the nation’s mid-section, Walsh has been hollowing out.
Wind and solar development offer some potential for new vigor. Property taxes on wind and solar farms could augment income benefiting school districts and rural hospitals. Landowners get lease payments. A non-profit, Baca Green Energy, was formed in 2003, and at one time it had 30 members. Only one of the landowners polled didn’t want to see turbines.
Baca County faces many challenges to economic development of its wind and solar resources posed by its location.
Hefley identifies another problem. Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which provides power to the local electrical cooperative in Baca County that powers his center-pivot sprinklers, was slow to develop renewable generation. Instead, it was content to keep operating its coal plants, especially at Craig, at the opposite corner of the state.
“They owned coal mines,” says Hefley. “They weren’t too excited about wind energy in southeastern Colorado.”
Tri-State’s revised plan
Tri-State, however, has shifted course, pulled by the low prices of renewables and pushed by legislative mandates in Colorado and New Mexico. Even before that switch, though, it had been studying new transmission to relieve reliability and congestion issues in eastern Colorado. The first iteration was a conceptual line, 225-kilovolts in capacity, from Lamar to the Front Range.
“While not designed specifically to accommodate substantial amounts of new generation, it was expected to allow for some,” reports Mark Stutz, a spokesman for Tri-State.
Tri-State cancelled that idea in late May. A key reason, said Stutz, was Colorado’s new carbon reduction goals. A bigger line would accommodate likely addition of new renewable sources from Eastern Colorado as necessary to accommodate the state-mandated decarbonization goals.
“In light of the recent legislation on greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that this project may not be adequate to meet the now substantial injection needs in eastern Colorado,” he explained.
Tri-State now has started looking into a 345-kV transmission line from Lamar to the Burlington area, where it is building a major wind farm at Cheyenne Ridge. The planning remains contingent upon the plans for the rest of the system surrounding Lamar-Burlington, says Stutz.
Future efforts to develop wind projects in Baca County will be under the umbrella of this current study.
An ambitious bill pulled
In March, soon after he introduced SB20-190, State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, described the bill as one that would solve a number of chicken-and-egg problems around Colorado. It would, he said, open up several billion dollars’ worth of investment opportunity for developers of renewable energy.
Detsky, the attorney who helped shape the bill, said resource-rich but transmission-poor areas can be found across southern Colorado, including the San Luis Valley, and on the Western Slope, too.
Colorado tried to solve the same problem in 2007. A law passed that year, SB 100, also required utilities to identify “energy resource” zones, but for many reasons the law has failed to stimulate development of the best resources, said Detsky.
Hansen’s bill delivered pressure for development of transmissions to renewable integration in southeastern Colorado and elsewhere.
The bill he introduced in March also had broader ambitions yet, as reflected in its subtitle: “Concerning Incentives for the Development of an Electric Grid that Fully Accommodates Increased Production from Zero-Carbon Generation Resources.”
To this end, Hansen’s bill sought to push Colorado’s utilities into participating or forming a regional transmission organization, or RTO, as exists elsewhere in the country. Colorado utilities are just now forming energy imbalance markets. Those markets might be likened to bicycles as compared to the auto of an RTO in terms of their power. Many have said that an RTO will be crucial for the deep decarbonization goals. But an RTO would reduce the autonomy of the individual utilities.
The result could have benefited utilities across Colorado, including those on the Western Slope, which have plentiful sunshine but not so much wind.
More broadly yet, Hansen’s bill set out to help begin laying out the electrical grid of the future. The grid that evolved in the 20th century was built around centralized generation from coal-fired power plants. This new grid will look somewhat different. But on June 3, Hansen told members of
a Senate committee that he had been unable to achieve agreement on key provisions and asked that the bill be postponed indefinitely. It’s dead for this covid-disrupted session.
Later, in an interview, he explained that both Xcel Energy and electrical workers had opposed it. The latter, he said, he believes mistakenly concluded the bill would cause transmission jobs to suffer. As for Xcel, he said he believed that the utility wanted to preserve its monopoly in creating transmission within its service territory.
In a statement, Xcel confirmed that it had opposed the bill. The company said the bill would have impacted how it reached its goals of reducing carbon emissions from its power supply 80% by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
“As drafted, the proposal would have added unnecessary costs to our customers at a time when many of our customers are suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as reduced the opportunity for labor to be completed by in-state trades and businesses,” the statement said.
Xcel also said Hansen’s bill “would have created a burdensome, expensive process that would have slowed the development to transmission that is critical to achieving Colorado’s carbon reduction goal.” The utility said sweeping reform of laws governing transmission development “at this time is unwarranted.”
Hansen said he intends to return with the basic idea of reforming transmission development in Colorado in January. He had hoped to pass it this year, to influence the generation and transmission planning by Xcel, Tri-State, and Black Hills Energy, but development of those electric resource plans takes several years. He believes it can still have value next year.
Meanwhile, in Walsh, the Hefleys await rain for their wheat in yet another drought cycle. Unless it rains, they may have little wheat to deliver to market. Most assuredly, they have no electrons to sell.