Power company at ‘nexus’ of public policyWritten by Christy Hemken
Accompanied by Customer and Community Manager Leslie Blythe and Jeff Hymas, who helps manage the company’s news media relations in Wyoming, Walje took some time to explain the intent of his company’s proposed transmission line, the Gateway West Transmission Line Project, and specifically the controversial portion proposed between Glenrock and Medicine Bow, which would connect the Windstar Substation to the Aeolus Substation.
“We know there are all kinds of discussion and controversy with transmission and wind development,” began Walje, “But nobody’s suggested we quit using electricity yet.”
He called wind energy and transmission a double-edged sword. “It’s the development opportunity versus the effect on the state’s cultural heritage, ag operations, etc. If it’s not done right, it’s a problem.”
Of the proposed route of the transmission line, Walje said, “I rode part of the proposed route with Mr. True recently, and he showed me where it was on his property. The line route went right over the top of his house. We also managed to go over the only subdivision east of Glenrock.”
Walje spoke of Diemer True, who leads the Northern Laramie Range Alliance against the transmission line. The Alliance claims the Northern Laramie Range in Wyoming is targeted for industrialization by transmission and wind energy industries.
Walje said that, although they’ve since proposed other options and there have been developments that may change the fundamentals, it’s too late to pull initial proposed routes from the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“I’m disappointed that the people who drew the lines initially didn’t use more care in where they drew the lines,” noted Walje, acknowledging that neighboring landowners may be more favorable to transmission lines on their property, as that would aid efforts to develop wind projects on their own land.
“Those people do need to have transmission access out of their projects onto the grid. Turbines and transmission are inseparable, but they get a treated a little differently at times,” he said.
“The EIS will still include all the line routes on the table, and we have a couple other options we would like under consideration,” said Walje. One option he mentioned is running the line in the direction of Wheatland.
“We’re right at the nexus of the discussion about wind development, transmission lines, sage grouse issues and cultural and private property issues,” said Walje. “Federal agencies prefer to see things built on private property, and private property owners like to see things built on public property; we oftentimes are caught in the middle. It’s a prolonged process to find out the ultimate right routes to meet needs of developers and serve Wyoming customers.”
In the end, Walje said the BLM will sort things out and ultimately decide where the transmission line will travel.
Walje said on July 8 Rocky Mountain Power and the BLM agreed to add a couple more months to the input process for a more thorough review of potential alternatives for the route. He added, “That will allow input from others more inclined toward a transmission line on the eastern side of the process. We need to figure it out and look at the maps.”
“We need to figure out if we can even build a transmission line in any of the places we propose,” he noted, mentioning sage grouse core areas as a main obstacle. “I received a copy of a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and it said you’re not going to build wind farms in core areas unless or until someone can demonstrate a mitigation approach.”
Walje said there was a Horizon Wind project proposed as a test facility, but the answer was no. “It’s a huge issue for wind development,” he noted. “Until someone demonstrates you can mitigate to the satisfaction of Fish and Wildlife, it’ll be very difficult to get transmission or wind projects in those areas.”
Rocky Mountain Power has already purchased a few ranches for the sole purpose of developing wind projects, but that was before core areas were designated and now the ranches are in the middle. “It’s as unknown to us and as big of a concern to us as anybody,” he said.
One thing he said his company can do to make siting easier is remove the 500,000-kilovolt line between Glenrock and Medicine Bow from the plans. “We don’t think the wind will be developed that we expected, because the sage grouse issue will at least cause a delay, and at some point, if an actual reduction of CO2 is required by law, we’ll shut down our Wyoming coal plants. We don’t have a choice.”
He said that, without the wind or the existing resources producing power, such a large line, costing several million dollars per mile, doesn’t make sense economically.
“That change may provide us with enough flexibility to get the lines built that we do need,” he continued, speaking of the 230,000-volt lines that need to run from Glenrock to Medicine Bow.
Of the proposed CO2 regulation’s effect on his company, Walje said, “We won’t do away with fossil fuels. The way the emissions allowances would be allocated, we’d get half of what we need to cover our CO2 emissions. We’ll be in the market, buying credits and passing those costs along to customers, possibly as soon as 2012.”
If the Waxman-Markey bill passes he estimated Wyoming customers would see a 20 percent increase in their power bills.
“You can’t run a whole system just on renewable energy,” said Walje of the trend away from fossil fuels. “We can suspend the laws of man, or change them, and distort the laws of economics, but the laws of physics will prevail. The electric grid requires some amount of stable electricity to run right. Based on the calls I get when we have an outage, I don’t think anybody’s looking for intermittent power out of their utility.”
Of the complications associated with finding a route for the transmission line, he said, “We can’t continue with the low-cost energy that fuels our economy without sorting out all the public policy issues. I don’t know what the venue is, but we’re in the nexus because of our proposal. We’re happy to sit down with all the parties to find a way that works.”
He mentioned the complications associated with running through 11 BLM field offices and two districts. “If people are willing to compromise some, we have quite a bit of latitude. The best line route is the one you can get permitted, not the shortest one.”
Of the future of fossil fuels in the U.S., he said the country needs to figure out how to continue to use fossil fuels. “Don’t pretend like you’re going to run the country without some sort of fossil fuel resource,” he said.