Just about everyone is getting into the act – planning for the greening of the American West. This means creating huge new sources of renewable energy – particularly solar and wind energy – and building mega-high voltage powerlines to transport that energy to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, and other major metropolitan centers hereabouts. First, we learned about the West-Wide Energy Corridors plan, which, among other things, would cut a wide swath across San Miguel County. Now, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks about the need for a “smart grid.” Western governors said recently they’d push for major energy infrastructure projects, which could be part of the new Obama Administration’s economic stimulus package.
In the waning days of the Bush Administration, the plan, said to have originated in former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office, won approval for the West-Wide Corridors Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. The energy industry, the environmental community, and political leaders agree that the Obama Administration will likely have new ideas about transforming the west into a “smart grid.” Leading decision-makers will be Colorado’s former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, now Secretary of Interior, and California’s Steven Chu, a top clean energy expert who now heads the new administration’s Energy Department.
In addition, the new Congress and its Democratic majority are expected to be “more open to new ideas,” according to a spokesperson for U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). Grijalva was a leading critic of the West Wide Corridors proposal, which would cover 6,000 miles and almost 3 million acres of public land. In Denver, Alex Douie, of The Wilderness Society, says while TWS “supports designation of energy corridors,” the current corridors proposal is seriously flawed. Douie says new congressional hearings on this vast energy grid “could happen.” Environmental organizations, such as TWS, “are looking forward to working with the new administration,” Douie adds.
Tom Darin, transmission specialist with the Denver-based Western Resource Advocates, is keeping a steady eye on energy corridor proposals. He says grouping gas, oil and electric power – “multiple linear components” – into a single location is probably a good idea. But too many aspects of the corridor plan are not well coordinated with the existing western grid or, among other things, designed for the lowest impact on the western landscape.
Darin directed me to WRA’s online publication – “Smart Lines, Transmission for the Renewable Energy Economy.” This 20-plus page document outlines the group’s position on “clean energy (that is) reliable, affordable and better for the West.”
WRA (formerly the Land and Water Fund) notes that projected energy demand will require from 15,000 megawatts to 30,000 new megawatts “of clean energy in the western states over the next decade.” The report is illustrated with dozens of photographs and maps that show a maze of existing and future energy transportation layouts. In one section, titled “Smart Energy Corridors to protect land and wildlife,” WRA says: “New power lines for renewable energy sources must avoid the iconic landscapes of the American West. The current federal proposal for ‘west-wide energy corridors’ in 11 western states would impact national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and other wild places.” Among those are Utah’s nearby (and glorious) Arches National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Club 20 Executive Director Reeves Brown says so far the energy corridors issue “isn’t a front burner item” for the Western Colorado group. Despite the Club’s enthusiasm for big-time oil and gas development on the West Slope, Brown suggests that the federal agencies will likely “work with local communities” to find acceptable locations for these energy paths which in some locations could run up to five miles wide. (San Miguel County, along with several other Western Slope counties, has recently dropped its membership in the Club, citing what the counties see as the Club’s enthusiastic endorsement of oil and gas development.)
Curiously, so far I haven’t been able to find any spokesperson for the O and G industry who is willing to talk about the energy corridors issues.
And when I caught up with Telluride’s Wes Perrin, newly installed president of the local San Miguel Power Association’s board of directors, he had this to say: “The High Plains Express will extend from Wyoming through Colorado’s eastern plains down through central-eastern New Mexico… then head west for the Arizona and possibly California markets.” He points out that both Wyoming and New Mexico have “far more renewable energy potential that they can use,” so this new energy transportation corridor could serve a dual purpose.
Of course, it makes sense that if the High Plains Express corridor becomes a reality, federal planners would drop the idea of a big energy corridor through Western Colorado, including San Miguel County.
I’ll admit there’s some “not in my back yard” thinking here, but it’s clear that in this high stakes energy transmission game, we’ll see both winners and losers. And right now, little is being said about the millions of acres of privately owned land in the West that must serve as the connecting links between the federally-designated public land that ends up as host to this vast new energy corridor. Right now, the West-Wide Corridors proposal is waiting in the wings for the Obama Administration to introduce its version to this sweeping plan – one that will alter America’s western landscape forever.