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Guest editorial: Biden’s push for power lines in the West — and across Utah

That leaves something called 'geographical smoothing,' or using widely located power sources to iron out the natural variability in solar and wind

Jonathan Thompson, High Country News
Overview map of the TransWest Express Transmission Project. The dotted line indicates the approximate route of this transmission line project, from the Marketplace Hub in Nevada to south-central Wyoming, with a terminal near Delta, Utah.
Courtesy TransWest Express Transmission Project/High Country News
Overview map of the TransWest Express Transmission Project. The dotted line indicates the approximate route of this transmission line project, from the Marketplace Hub in Nevada to south-central Wyoming, with a terminal near Delta, Utah.
Courtesy TransWest Express Transmission Project/High Country News

In the middle of a sunny April day, something remarkable happened: The California Independent System Operator clocked several moments of negative net demand. Alas, the moment of breezy sunshine could not last, for it was doomed by the dastardly duck curve.

But wait! Is that salvation on the horizon? Could the TransWest Express be the duck-slayer we’ve awaited?

Say what? OK, maybe I went a bit too far in trying to spice up all the wonk there. Sorry. Let’s try again:



On two consecutive Sundays this month, solar panels on the California grid — with a bit of help from wind turbines — cranked out more juice than Californians consumed. Yes, you read that right: Nearly all of California’s gadgets and appliances and air conditioners and lightbulbs were powered by the sun.

This solar bonanza is significant because it offers a glimpse of a possible future, one in which the power grid runs on clean energy around the clock. Unfortunately, it was only a glimpse, and an ephemeral one at that. That afternoon, as is the norm, solar generation ebbed at about the same time as electricity consumption increased, causing net demand — or total system load minus solar and wind generation — to rocket upwards again. The pattern is repeated to varying degrees nearly every day and has come to be called the California duck curve. When plotted on a graph, the net demand curve resembles the outline of a duck (hence the nickname), with a midday trough followed by an afternoon upward swoop.



It’s problematic, because the steep incline in net demand must be matched by a corresponding increase in power generation — often from not-so-clean sources. More solar leads to a steeper curve, which tends to lead to more natural gas generation, more greenhouse gas emissions and more health-harming pollution in frontline communities. 

The duck curve must be tamed before California — and other solar-rich states — can reach clean energy and climate goals. But how?

On negative-net-demand Sunday, grid operators drew mostly from natural gas power to meet that rising duck-neck demand, but they also leaned on hydropower and the state’s growing fleet of batteries. That was helpful, but those sources will never carry the whole load: Batteries are expensive, fire-prone and short-lived, and they require lithium mining, while hydropower capacity has been seriously diminished by drought. (It got an atmospheric river boost this year, but it can’t be relied upon in the long term.)

That leaves something called “geographical smoothing,” or using widely located power sources to iron out the natural variability in solar and wind. The idea is that the sun is always shining or the wind is always blowing somewhere — and therefore potentially generating energy. The trick is moving all that power around. Which brings us to TransWest Express.

On April 11, the Bureau of Land Management gave the “notice to proceed” for the 732-mile high-voltage transmission line, in the works for nearly two decades, which will carry wind power from Wyoming to southern Nevada and points beyond. The Biden administration, intent on pushing renewable energy development on public lands, is also advancing a flurry of other long-distance, clean-energy transmission projects. The SunZia line from New Mexico to Arizona is expected to get the federal green light next month after 17 years of agency review. Last year, the Ten West Link in southern Arizona and the Gateway South in Wyoming were greenlighted. The Boardman-to-Hemingway line in Idaho and Oregon has also cleared its permitting hurdles.

Clean energy advocates are celebrating because these lines will enable the construction of utility-scale solar and wind power facilities by giving those projects a path to distant markets. It will also help stitch together the somewhat fractured Western grid, enabling more power sharing and coordination across the region. That will help decarbonize the power grid and make it more reliable and resilient to climate change-exacerbated extreme weather and wildfire.

Plus, some of these lines may help combat that dreaded duck curve.

TransWest Express, for example, will carry power from the 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind facility, which is currently under construction in Carbon County, Wyoming, to the Hoover Dam in Nevada, where it will link up with the California power grid. SunZia is designed to carry a similar amount of juice from Pattern Energy’s planned wind power projects in eastern New Mexico to a substation near Phoenix, where it could continue traveling westward. All those gigawatts of wind power could help grid operators in California — or Nevada or Arizona — “follow the load” as solar generation wanes without burning a molecule of natural gas.

It’s got advocates asking: Given the myriad benefits of these projects, why the hell did it take so long to get them approved? And some clean energy advocates and even environmentalists are holding these projects’ challenges up as evidence that the National Environmental Policy Act — the federal law that requires big projects to be analyzed for impacts — is broken and needs to be reformed.

I’d beg to differ.

Fifteen years is, indeed, a long time to spend wading through bureaucratic red tape. Heck, I get aggravated after waiting 15 minutes for a clerk at the DMV to acknowledge my existence. But these projects are gargantuan and can have significant impacts. The lines span hundreds of miles and cross multiple jurisdictions, they further industrialize the landscape, and their hulking metal towers sully the view. Power line corridors are often cleared of trees and other vegetation and even treated with pesticides, harming the forest and fragmenting wildlife habitat. Up to 64 million birds die each year after colliding with or being electrocuted by power lines.

It’s not clear how a review of something so complex could be streamlined, or whether it would actually be desirable, even for the project proponents. In fact, a long and rigorous permitting process often results in a better project that is less vulnerable to future legal challenges — and the resulting delays. The Ten West Link, for example, was originally routed through the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists protested, and the BLM preferred a different plan. The developers rerouted their line around the refuge and got their permit.

The SunZia line went through a similar process in New Mexico. Because the line will carry wind power, it garnered the support of clean energy boosters like Western Resource Advocates and the Obama administration fast-tracked its permit, granting federal approval in 2015.

But it still had to get the go-ahead from the states. New Mexico regulators hesitated because of strong opposition from conservationists due to the proposed route’s potential impact on migratory birds. Also, the line would cross a portion of the White Sands Missile Range, making the Pentagon “uncomfortable.” So, in 2020, SunZia said it would reopen the NEPA process in order to reroute the line around wildlife refuges and the missile range, and it tracked migratory bird paths to determine where the line could cross the Rio Grande with the least impact. That alleviated most concerns, and so New Mexico gave its approval; the BLM is expected to rule on the amended route soon.

Unfortunately, the process didn’t work as well in Arizona. There, sovereign Indigenous nations and conservation groups have attempted to get SunZia to reroute the line away from the fragile, biodiverse San Pedro River, because it would endanger birds and other wildlife and potentially damage culturally significant sites. But that didn’t seem to faze Arizona regulators, who tend to be more amenable to such projects and less responsive to environmental concerns than their New Mexican counterparts, and they unanimously approved the project. So far, the BLM has gone along with the proposed route, too. That removed any incentive for SunZia to reroute the line in Arizona as it had done in New Mexico.

Now, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the Tohono O’odham Nation are protesting the BLM’s preferred route along the San Pedro River. And a coalition is suing Arizona over its approval of the line, so that even if the BLM gives the go-ahead, the project could be mired in the courts for months or years to come, delaying construction indefinitely. Streamlining NEPA would only make this sort of hang-up more likely.

Cleaning up the Western power grid won’t be easy. It’s a huge machine that was built up over the last seven decades to move power from giant coal-fired plants and enormous hydropower dams to faraway cities and states. Since then, the way we use and generate electricity has evolved dramatically, and it will need to continue to change in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. This must include small-scale, distributed generation and energy storage and microgrids. We can and should blanket every warehouse, big-box store, parking lot, irrigation canal and home with solar panels. And, perhaps more importantly, we as a society need to learn to become more energy-efficient, using less power even as we electrify everything.

But even that won’t be enough. Utility-scale wind and solar installations will also be necessary, as will the long-distance transmission lines needed to carry the energy they generate. But just because they are needed does not mean they should be rubber-stamped for approval. Instead, they should be subject to scrutiny, go through a rigorous permitting process and be sited in a manner that does the least bit of harm to people and the environment — even if it takes 15 years to get there.

This article is republished from The Landline, a feature of High Country News (hcn.org).

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