Two weeks in the West

 

Spend an hour bare-skinned in the relentless sun and howling winds common along the Rocky Mountain states' front ranges, and you'll get a visceral (and likely angry red) understanding of the elements fueling yet another energy boom in the West.

Wind and solar development is ramping up across the region, according to two recent industry reports. The United States expanded its total wind energy capacity by 45 percent in 2007 alone, according to the American Wind Energy Association. By the end of last year, over 6,560 megawatts of wind power (more than a third of the nation's total - enough to power approximately 1.75 million homes) was online in the West, most of it in California, Washington and Colorado. Meanwhile, California, Nevada and Colorado led the nation in solar installation in 2007, accounting for 114 of the 150 megawatts of solar photovoltaic arrays added to the grid, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Nevada also brought a 64-megawatt concentrating solar power plant online, and there are 4,430 megawatts of similar projects in the pipeline, mostly in the desert Southwest. The growth is propelled in large part by tax incentives and state mandates for utilities to expand their renewable energy portfolios - eight Western states have such portfolio standards in place.

Although a handful of the nation's top 10 windiest counties lie along the Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern Montana, the state - with only 164 megawatts of wind power online - is still a relatively small player in the renewable energy game. But (pardon the cliche) the winds of change are blowing. A Spanish company is in the process of constructing a $400 million, 210-megawatt wind farm east of Glacier National Park; the 135-megawatt wind farm at Judith Gap is looking to add 35 towering turbines; and the Martinsdale Hutterite colony east of Helena has agreed to lease its 15,000-acre farm to a Texas company planning a 300 megawatt, 100-turbine wind project. At least 11 companies, both international and domestic, are prospecting for new wind sites in the state, and wind power leases are multiplying from the Canadian border to Great Falls, as well as near Circle, Glendive, Baker and Ennis.

But the power's intermittency and the limited capacity of (and lack of) transmission lines remain roadblocks to the speedy development of renewables in Montana and other states. Several Montana wind projects are currently in line for limited transmission capacity with the state's major utility, NorthWestern Energy. NorthWestern, which has declined to buy power from some producers because of the uncertainty and expense associated with securing power to back up turbines when the wind isn't blowing, recently won the right to charge wind producers a fee to help offset backup power costs. In Colorado (fourth in the nation for solar power potential), solar energy development faces similar challenges. The San Luis Valley, identified as one of the best sites in the state for utility-scale solar, for example, currently lacks the high-capacity power lines (which can cost more than $250,000 per mile on flat land) necessary to deliver electricity to urban centers.

The federal government has proposed 6,000 miles of new energy corridors on Western public lands, but critics say that may not be any help. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, recently likened the planned routes to extension cords benefitting existing and new coal-fired power plants.

Even as renewable energy efforts ratchet up, another environmental effort may be ratcheting down. Since the 1980s, the federal government has paid farmers in the West and elsewhere to leave their fields fallow for wildlife habitat through its Conservation Reserve Program. But the rising cost of grain - the result of increasing (and now panicked) global demand and the push for ethanol - compelled farmers last fall to pull more than 2 million acres from the program. Millions more acres will be at stake when more CRP contracts come up for renewal this fall.

The rising cost of grain is being felt elsewhere as well. In Seattle, Wash., the global rush for rice has left Asian restaurants battling over Costco's dwindling bulk supplies. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you're a fan of free-roaming bison), food banks and tribes around the West have managed to circumvent the rising cost of meat (spurred in part by the rising cost of grain) by collecting some 600,000 pounds of wild bison slaughtered for wandering out of Yellowstone National Park.

 

The explosive West

Worried about climate change? Skyrocketing gas and food prices? Making your next mortgage payment? The West's explosive past may help you keep things in perspective. Eleven Western volcanoes have been active within the last 2,000 years, and at least nine other volcanic areas have the potential to be. One of the largest - a massive, restless volcano underlying Yellowstone National Park - has produced three of the most catastrophic eruptions on global record. The most recent, 640,000 years ago, spewed 240 cubic miles of magma and debris, covered nine Western states and much of the Midwest in ash, and chilled the global climate for several years with airborne ash and gas. (Click on image in upper right hand corner to see timeline)