TransWest Express poised to expand reach of Wyo renewables

TransWest Express poised to expand reach of Wyo renewables

After 15 years of planning and permitting, construction will begin this year on the TransWest Express high-voltage transmission line — a milestone expansion of Wyoming’s electric power export industry to markets in the American Southwest and one of the largest transmission upgrades to the western grid in decades.

The Bureau of Land Management granted TransWest Express LLC a “notice to proceed” in April, culminating years of work and millions of dollars invested in a “vision” to bring Wyoming’s renewable energy potential to the rest of the West, according to company officials.

“It’s a day that’s been long coming,” TransWest Express Executive Vice President and COO Roxane Perruso said. A groundbreaking event will take place Tuesday, she said, with a special appreciation for the Carbon County community’s integral support. That support represented a leap-of-faith for a region with its cultural and economic roots in coal.

Power project

While TransWest Express LLC was mired in planning and a painstaking bureaucratic permitting process that included obtaining rights-of-way from hundreds of entities across the 732-mile route, its affiliate Power Company of Wyoming was already doing preliminary construction work on the wind farm that will energize the line. The Anschutz Corporation owns both companies. 

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project will span some 320,000 acres in Carbon County and generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity — representing about 28% of Wyoming’s current electrical generation capacity today, according to U.S. Energy Information data. It will be the largest onshore wind energy facility in North America, according to Power Company of Wyoming.

This graph depicts the route of the TransWest Express transmission line connecting Wyoming wind energy to the Southwest. (TransWest Express)

Phased construction of the 732-mile TransWest Express high voltage transmission system will begin later this year, according to company officials. The first phase includes a new substation in Carbon County. From there, crews will erect towers and string high-voltage lines to a station in Delta, Utah. That portion of the project will initially begin moving up to 1,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity via direct current by December 2027. 

The second phase includes an alternate current line to connect with other powerline systems in southern Nevada. By the end of 2028, the final phases of the system will ramp up to 3,000 megawatts and four system interconnections in the Southwest, according to TransWest Express officials.

“These components will provide important new bulk transmission capacity and connectivity with the PacifiCorp system in Wyoming, with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Intermountain Power systems in Utah, with the NV Energy system in Nevada and with the California Independent System Operator,” Perruso said. 

New dynamic

Aside from transporting power from Wyoming’s Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind facility, TransWest may also serve as an onramp for other energy projects, such as the hydrogen energy proposal at the Intermountain Power Project in Utah, and potentially new nuclear power facilities, according to TransWest officials.

“As Wyoming looks at more carbon-free [energy] resources, we are going to be that pathway that allows those resources to get to the market,” Perruso said. “We’re opening up the new market for renewables and also creating a pathway for future carbon-free resources.”

Crews work on road and wind turbine pad construction June 23, 2022 at the future site of the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project in Carbon County. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Some clean energy and climate advocates hail the TransWest Express project as a vital step forward in “decarbonizing” the western grid. Once completed, the transmission line will serve as a “backbone,” increasing connectivity between large demand centers — southern Nevada, Utah and southern California — and rural areas that can generate commercial-scale renewable energy, such as Wyoming’s abundant capacity for wind power generation.

“This is an example of infrastructure that is needed and should be built,” Western Resource Advocates Deputy Director of Regional Markets Vijay Satyal said. “It is definitely very important for the West.”

Together, the TransWest line and CCSM wind facility represent a new dynamic — as well as a gamble that too few entities have been willing or able to take on, according to Satyal and other utility market watchers. It’s a rare move that requires a lot of patience with the permitting process, according to one TransWest Express official, as well as deep pockets, according to others.

Going independent

Most consumers don’t get to choose their electricity provider, whether they’re powering a home in Casper or a chain restaurant in Evanston, but the TransWest project diverges from that paradigm. For example, PacifiCorp, which also operates as Rocky Mountain Power, is one of several electric utility monopolies in Wyoming. It serves captive customers in certain areas because, generally speaking, it owns the power infrastructure exclusively.

As a monopoly, PacifiCorp is regulated by the Wyoming Public Service Commission, as well as service commissions in the five other states it operates. It is required to justify and win approval for its electricity rates. In return, it has a guaranteed, captive ratepayer base to finance system operations and necessary upgrades.

Just southeast of the Jim Bridger Plant in August 2019, PacifiCorp workers erect towers that will carry new transmission lines, predominantly for wind energy, to tie into the regional electrical grid where it leaves the plant. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

There are variations, such as rural electric co-ops that work under different sets of rules and authorities. But the same geographically limited market for grid infrastructure plays out all over Wyoming, the West and the nation. Although utilities like PacifiCorp are shifting from burning coal to cleaner forms of electric generation within their own service territories, Satyal said, it isn’t enough to achieve the level of connectivity between hundreds of individual service systems to allow for new sources of renewable and low-carbon energy.

The strategy behind Power Company of Wyoming and TransWest Express is to operate as independent merchants, selling and delivering renewable and low-carbon energy to any utility it can reach via the three major operating regions that TransWest will connect to on the western grid.

“We’re broadening the [Wyoming and western] market to include these new interconnections and new customers,” Perruso said. “We’re not constrained by a service territory.

“That also means it’s risky,” Perruso continued. “This is why you don’t see [a lot of] developers doing this, because it’s a risky and an entrepreneurial proposition.”

Big gamble, deep pockets 

Unlike a regulated utility, neither TransWest Express LLC nor Power Company of Wyoming have a captive ratepayer base to leverage upfront financing or a guaranteed paying customer base for ongoing operations. That’s where both the gamble and the deep pockets come in.

Both companies are affiliates of the Denver-based Anschutz Corporation. The worldwide oil, investment, sports, real estate, entertainment and publishing company headed by Philip Anschutz is worth some $10.8 billion, according to Forbes.

“Thanks to the deep pockets or the financial muscle the owners had, they survived a long [permitting] process to comply with all the environmental requirements,” Satyal said. “This is a good example of a company seeing the value proposition and the economic benefits of exporting Wyoming-rich wind and moving into the decarbonization of the future.”

A truck hauls a wind turbine blade through Medicine Bow in July 2020. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

TransWest Express doesn’t yet have customers contracted to take the power it plans to deliver from Wyoming. But, Satyal said, the rush to renewables to meet self-imposed carbon emission standards — particularly in the Southwest — is a good bet with a potentially lucrative payoff.

“God forbid California has a reliability crisis. This line will be a very important lifeline in providing energy — and at high [profit],” he said. “That’s competition at work, which I think is what Wyoming wants to support — a competitive market.”

Wyoming Energy Authority Executive Director Rob Creager agrees.

“Our state is in the business of producing and selling world-class energy,” Creager said. “So projects like TransWest Express opening up entirely new consumer markets for our energy products have tremendous potential for Wyoming.”

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