New renewable energy projects may find opportunity in old transmission lines

A Montana wind energy project plans to make use of existing infrastructure built for coal.


Just 30 miles north of the coal power hub of Colstrip, Montana, plans to establish another prodigious energy facility are in place. But the Clearwater project, as it’s known, is not coming for the coal that has long been the region’s lifeblood. Instead, it’s a massive wind farm looking to harness the existing transmission capacity, built for the coal industry, the area has to offer. 

Transmission is an often-overlooked part of the energy equation, but as increasing amounts of renewable energy are added to the grid, the system’s connective tissue has itself become a source of complication — and opportunity.

In large part, the existing electrical grid was built around hydropower, nuclear and coal and natural gas power plants. Those existing long-distance power lines are either filled to capacity with conventionally-generated electrons, or they just aren’t there, leaving vast swaths of the West — often the best places to build a wind or solar plant — without a way to get that power to the people who need it.

A helicopter helps workers service power lines in Wyoming. The state is the target of a number of projects aiming to boost its transmission capacity and improve access to its wind resources.

“When there isn’t already sufficient transmission, projects must evaluate upgrading the current transmission lines, or building new ones,” says Michael Cressner of Orion Renewable Energy Group — the company behind the Clearwater project, which is still two years away from beginning construction but is expected to be Montana’s largest wind farm when it comes online, with at least 300 MW of generating capacity.

Cressner says that transmission was a chief concern when they were picking Clearwater’s location. In fact, Clearwater’s developers were lucky. For many renewable energy projects, access to robust transmission capacity is harder to come by. Now, however, a number of projects are aiming to eliminate those barriers, while other renewable energy developments, like Clearwater, could start positioning themselves to capitalize on existing or freed up transmission capacity.

Wyoming has become a prime target for privately funded transmission projects, with two-thirds of the energy produced in the state sent to consumers beyond its borders. 

The bulk of the West’s transmission infrastructure is concentrated along the Pacific Coast, where it is predominantly oriented north to south, with few significant lines branching directly to the Interior West. But projects such as TransWest Express, Gateway West and Gateway South are seeking to bridge the gap between the coast and Wyoming, which has “some of the best on-shore wind resources in the United States,” says Kara Choquette, the director of communications for TransWest Express LLC. That project is being built primarily to distribute energy from a sprawling, 1,000-turbine wind farm owned by the same parent corporation, being planned near Rawlins, Wyoming.

Choquette says that existing transmission capacity in Wyoming is almost entirely committed to other power sources, creating a need for new lines to help the state get its renewable energy to market. Despite the challenges associated with transmission, she expresses optimism about the direction the system is heading. 

“I think of transmission as more of an enabler than a barrier,” says Choquette. “It enables access to more diverse resources, more cost-effective resources.” 

But the hurdles are considerable. Navigating the bureaucracy and getting the permits required to run power across hundreds of miles can take years. And in the West, the red tape is even nastier than in other parts of the country, thanks to the slow-moving permitting process on federal lands. 

“Transmission is tougher in the West, because of the multi-use land ownership,” says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. He says coordinating with so many different interests is a major obstacle, and that plenty of landowners don’t want things crossing their property.

To bypass the complications associated with new transmission projects, repurposing existing lines — as Clearwater is doing — is an appealing tactic. That strategy may become more common in the future, as coal power plants are downsized or retired, potentially making more transmission capacity available.

“Transmission access in the West is a valuable asset and people will find ways to use it,” says Cameron Yourkowski, a transmission and renewable energy integration expert with Renewable Northwest, in Oregon. Doing so, he says, makes sense “from a cost perspective and from an environmental, land-use perspective.”

Yourkowski says Clearwater could signify the early stages of a broader trend of renewables tapping into available transmission, rattling off a list of coal plants from Oregon to Nevada and Wyoming that are candidates to be either fully or partially decommissioned. 

“It’s definitely a trend, I’d say, and we’re at the beginning of it,” says Yourkowski. “It’s fair to say there’s interest there (from renewables).”

With possible coal plant retirements as a moving target, it’s too soon to say how much transmission might be freed up and whether it will be made available to renewables or not. Utilities retain the rights to transmission lines they built and can therefore determine future users.

In Montana, however, Cressner downplayed the potential impact of reduced competition, saying that with some upgrades, the Clearwater project will have sufficient transmission capacity “even with the current regime of power generators.”

But if they succumb to the economic and regulatory pressures facing the coal industry, renewables — and wind in particular — may be best suited to fill the void. 

“By some great divinity, there seems to be a lot of wind near the coal power plants of the West,” says Yourkowski. “If coal plants do retire, there’d be a lot of opportunity.”

Bryce Gray is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets at @_BryceGray.

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