Tilting at Windmills

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

The conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz wants to turn his 500-square-mile cattle ranch in Wyoming into the world's largest wind farm. The project would generate four times more electricity than the Hoover Dam, enough to power all of the households in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It would also make Anschutz, an oilman and vocal climate-change denier, the nation's most unlikely environmental hero. But between wrestling with government agencies and protecting the local sage grouse and bald eagle, obstacles loom large. It will be a miracle if the wind farm ever gets built.

Gabriel Kahn's Pacific Standard cover story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, June 29. Until then, an excerpt:

Bill Miller grew up in Greybull, a remote Wyoming ranching community where entertainment was the Friday-night rodeo. He left town the day after he finished high school. For the next four decades he worked in the energy business, traveling across the West cajoling ranchers who owned the land he needed to drill for oil. At the Anschutz Corporation, where he has worked for most of those years, he rose through the ranks to head up the oil and gas business and the company’s vast ranching operations. Now 67, he has a close-cropped gray beard, rarely cracks a smile, and speaks in a low, raspy growl forged by years of cigarettes.

Miller spends most days in his office in the firm’s Denver skyscraper, kept company by a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne that stands in a corner. But give him any excuse to be out on the land and he’ll take it. The Overland Trail Ranch is larger than the City of Los Angeles, yet only three ranch hands live there year-round. Its pastures extend for miles in a wide, sweeping basin surrounded by steep, rocky hills. During round-up, ranchers use an airplane to scour the property’s sweeping, ochre, high desert and rocky bluffs to find lost cattle.

On a drive across the ranch, I watched a herd of antelope, startled by our truck, tear through the sagebrush at nearly 40 miles an hour. Except for a few rutted dirt roads that cut across the property and a line of cattle fencing, the landscape appears devoid of human tracks. The wind, though, is everywhere. It tugs at every stitch of clothing and tries to pry any object from your grip.

The engineering firm Miller hired to map out the wind farm initially handed him a layout for 650 turbines, a figure that would have made it the biggest wind farm in the U.S. Miller sent the plans back and asked for more: “They said, ‘Hey, this is already pretty big. How big do you want it?’”

When the engineers handed him a plan with 1,000 turbines stretching for more than 20 miles across the highest ridges on the ranch, where the wind is at its fiercest, Miller signed off. A thousand turbines was double the number at the most powerful wind farm in the nation, the Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County, California. Miller also asked for the largest turbines on the market, which, at $4 million apiece, rise to nearly the height of the Washington Monument and have a capacity of more than three megawatts each. All told, Anschutz’s wind farm would be able to produce more than 3,000 megawatts of power, four times the electricity produced by the Hoover Dam and enough to power every home in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It could also cut carbon emissions by as much as 13 million tons a year.

At first, the renewable energy industry had a tough time grasping the scope of the plan. Roxane Perruso, the project’s general counsel, told me she went to an American Wind Energy Association convention where someone asked her how big the farm would be. Being modest, she responded that it was over 2,000 megawatts. “He put his hand on my shoulder, sighed, and said, ‘Oh, sweetheart, I think you’re confused— you must mean 200 megawatts.’”

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This story is part of our week-long special report on energy issues in California produced in collaboration with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For more, visit the project's landing page.