Some days, the wind rips across Wyoming’s southern plains at 70mph. Cottonwood trees bend, tall grass lies flat and 18-wheel trucks tip over along Interstate 80. It only takes a breeze of about 6mph to get the long white arms of an electricity-generating wind turbine turning, at full speed they can power thousands of homes.
As one of the US’s windiest states, Wyoming has enormous potential to help power the country’s green revolution, but renewable energy in the west has long been dogged by a fundamental problem of transmission. Wind and solar farms tend to be located in remote areas separated from populated cities by hundreds of miles of rugged terrain, a tangle of government regulations and resistance from landowners who don’t want power lines buzzing over their yards.
After more than a decade of trying, a corporation that made billions drilling for oil is poised to add a critical piece in the renewable energy puzzle. This month, TransWest Express LLC announced that it had acquired almost all the permits, permissions and partnerships needed to begin seeking customers for a 732-mile high voltage power line that would carry 20,000 GWh of renewable energy a year – roughly three-quarters of the energy needed to power Los Angeles – from southern Wyoming to a distribution hub near Las Vegas where it could tap into the grid that feeds Phoenix and Los Angeles.
With extreme heat bearing down on desert cities, the Colorado River running so low that the Hoover dam’s energy production has dwindled by a quarter, wildfires raging from June through October and freak winter storms knocking out gas operations, western energy managers need new and diverse sources of power to avoid more blackouts. If it comes to fruition, the TransWest Express would provide crucial alternatives while helping western states meet their ambitious renewable energy commitments.
The company behind TransWest, Anschutz Corporation, amassed a fortune in the 19th century in the oil-rich shale deposits of Wyoming. Today, the Denver-based corporation controls the Washington Examiner, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and the Coachella music festival. It’s also the largest private oil and gas company in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, drilling on more than 155,800 hectares (385,000 acres).
Anschutz , which has a deep rooting in fossil fuels, says it sees the potential in renewables and, specifically, the opportunity in overcoming the field’s debilitating transmission obstacle. But the path has been riddled with obstacles. “These big interregional connections across the whole grid system have not been built in decades,” said Kara Choquette, communications director for TransWest Express.
The price of navigating the west’s regulatory quagmire is a significant deterrent, but TransWest is backed by a fossil-fueled empire. Anschutz also has a vested interest in connecting Wyoming wind to larger markets, because it happens to be building what would be the largest windfarm in North America on a ranch in Carbon county: the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Project, which could come online in 2026. Since 2008, TransWest has spent tens of millions of dollars to secure permissions across private and public land in 14 counties and four states, Choquette said.
Historically, the sheer size of the region has limited connectivity. Whereas eastern states are generally small and tightly knitted, the American west encompasses some 1.8m sq miles. Currently, there is only about 136,000 miles of electricity transmission network, said Vijay Satyal, regional energy markets manager for Western Resource Advocates, a conservation nonprofit based in Colorado.
On top of that, much of the infrastructure is ageing, and municipal utility companies have been reluctant to upgrade or join larger, more competitive interstate grids. “It is the fear of giving up, in many cases, expensive and less efficient systems,” Satyal said. “It’s like riding a clunker car down to the ground.”
When it comes online around 2024, the TransWest Express will comprise two systems: a direct-current line suited to long-distance transmission between Sinclair, Wyoming and Delta, Utah, and an alternating current line linking the Utah terminal to southern Nevada and, eventually, beyond. Its support towers would reach 180 ft tall, and its 250-ft wide path would cross sagebrush, high desert and low montane forest.
For that reason, the project has drawn concern from environmentalists worried its footprint would harm prime wilderness and sensitive habitat for vulnerable species like the desert tortoise and greater sage grouse. Wyoming is home to about 37% of the country’s remaining sage grouse, an iconic western bird whose populations have been reduced by housing development, oil and gas extraction and, especially recently, searing wildfires.
Transmission infrastructure poses direct and indirect risks to sagebrush habitat and species like grouse, said Jeffrey Beck, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Wyoming. Some may fly into the wires, but more could die in fires fueled in part by invasive weeds that hitch a ride on work equipment or suffer predation from raptors and ravens that establish nests in overhead support structures. Generally, grouse tend to avoid tall things, and “It’s not like these animals have anywhere else to go,” said Beck.
To address these concerns, TransWest proposed multiple routes that predominantly ride shotgun along existing infrastructure, like railroads and highways, and thread the needle between core habitat areas. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management and all the local natural resource departments along the way have approved the project.
However, it’s not just environmentalists slowing the west’s renewable energy transition: wind power has struggled against those who see turbines as eyesores and those still deeply invested in coal. In Wyoming, the minerals industry has slowed renewable development by painting the wind and sun as unreliable and expensive, while repeatedly lobbying to raise taxes on the industry. And yet, the TransWest Express – a big green energy transmission project proposed by an oil company, that would run through areas of the west that have historically depended on resource extraction – points to a tectonic cultural shift.
The cost of renewable energy is falling and investment in its development is rising. This is just one of at least 22 shovel-ready high-voltage wind and solar power transmission projects that could bump US generation by 50% and add more than 1.2m jobs, according to a report sponsored by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid.
Still, “it takes time to build renewable energy projects,” Satyal said. The benefits of interstate renewable energy are clear today, but it hasn’t always been that way, and “utilities have not realized how fast that change would come”.