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Wind Energy Picking Up Steam Onshore and Off

Government approval of power lines to carry wind energy to the coasts is a sign that momentum is building in the renewable energy sector.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the approval of the TransWest Express—a green energy power line that stretches more than 700 miles across the Southwest United States. The approval of the transmission line project is the result of a partnership between the Department of the Interior and Western states to encourage and expedite the development of renewable energy projects on federal lands. For the Power Company of Wyoming—the massive wind farm that will generate the 3,000 megawatts of energy expected to course through the TransWest Express—the approval is a long time coming.

The idea for the Wyoming wind farm and an inter-state power line to carry its bounty into California—where laws mandate that a third of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources—was first conceived of a decade ago, as Gabriel Kahnreported in Pacific Standard last year. As Kahn noted, the conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz—who made his fortune, in part, from oil—owned some of the only land in the U.S. where winds rank as Class 7 (the highest on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s wind density scale) and where winds reach their peak force during the day (when people tend to use electricity most).

Kahn chronicled the regulatory quagmire that has kept the project in the planning stages for the last 10 years, from the environmental analyses for the turbines to the construction of the power line itself:

The construction alone would be an impressive feat of engineering, requiring helicopters to lift and then lay the thick aluminum cable on top of 120-foot-high towers. But the real complication was getting the necessary permits and rights-of-way from the federal government, the states, Indian tribes, and local landowners. The longer a transmission line gets, the more it becomes ensnared in property rights. One of the last power lines of this magnitude to be built in the United States, the Pacific Intertie, from Oregon to Southern California (completed in 1970), required a presidential decree. Simply put, the fact that there are so few power lines between the Great Plains and America’s power-hungry consumers along the coasts is what keeps some of America’s best green energy trapped in the middle of the country.

Offshore wind farms faced similar hurdles, Madeleine Thomasreported for Pacific Standard in August. But on Monday, the first offshore wind farm in the country—a five turbine installation off the coast of Rhode Island—began operations.

Recent technological advances by engineers in Ohio that ease the installation of turbines and reduce their environmental impacts will only accelerate the pace of offshore development, Thomas explained:

Instead of drilling the turbine’s foundation directly into seafloor bedrock, a massive steel drum, known as a Mono Bucket, establishes a suction cup-like grip on the lake’s floor. The drums, which take just 12 hours to install, are less likely to disturb the environment than traditional “pile-driving” foundations, which are prone to releasing pollution and sediment trapped in deeper waters.

The Rhode Island wind farm is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tons every year. Meanwhile, the future Wyoming wind farm could cut emissions by 13 million tons a year. But the growth of the renewable energy industry isn’t just good for the environment; it’s creating jobs as well. Along with the TransWest Express, the Department of the Interior also approved the Energy Gateway South transmission project. Together, the two projects are expected to create some 2,300 construction jobs in the region.

One can only hope that these economic incentives will be enough to protect the clean energy gains made under the Obama administration from the incoming presidency. Another reason to be optimistic: Nearly 80 percent of wind power plants in the U.S. are located in Republican districts.