News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

725-Mile Transmission Line for Renewable Energy Could Hatch Harm to Eagles

Power line goes up in Wyoming | Photo: Western Area Power Admin /Flickr/Creative Commons License

ReWire reported Tuesday that a study by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists indicated that California and Wyoming were the two states with the greatest number of verifiable eagle deaths at wind turbines. That study also revealed eagle mortality in both states has risen sharply in the last few years, with all 31 Wyoming mortalities taking place since January 2009.

That's almost certainly a direct result of Wyoming's rapidly growing wind industry, which increased in generating capacity from less than 300 megawatts in 2008 to more than 1,400 by the end of 2011. But that growth slackened in 2012. Despite the approval last October of the 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind facility south of Rawlins, the state added not a single new megawatt of wind capacity last year. That's because while Wyoming has a lot of wind power potential, it doesn't have enough transmission lines to get that power to markets.

But a major transmission project now being considered by the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies could change all that, bringing 3,000 megawatts of power from Wyoming to cities in California, Nevada, and Arizona -- and removing an obstacle to much greater expansion of wind turbines in Wyoming's eagle habitat.

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The Anschutz Corporation's TransWest Express transmission project, slated for construction from 2014-2016, would be a 725-mile long, high voltage direct current transmission line running from Sinclair, Wyoming to Las Vegas, Nevada. There, it would connect to distribution grids running to cities in the swath of the southwest between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The project's business plan explicitly focuses on bringing Wyoming wind energy to California and the southwest to help southwestern states meet oour renewable energy goals, despite the fact that at least here in California, we'd rather meet those goals in-state.

Though the BLM has taken on the lead agency role for the project, whose Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is now just winding down its public comment period, the line could cross lands managed by a number of different owners and federal agencies, tribal lands, and a number of state-owned land parcels in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. We say "could" cross because a number of alternative routes are described in the DEIS, some of the alternatives diverging by many miles.

Depending on which of the maze of alternative routes is eventually chosen the sheer scale of the project means that a staggering number of protected "Special Designation Areas" (SDAs) could be crossed or affected by the transmission project's 250-foot-wide right of way. They would include:

  • Dinosaur National Monument,
  • the Desert and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge National Wildlife Refuges
  • Lake Mead National Recreation Area
  • Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area
  • The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Overland Trail, Cherokee Trail, and
  • Old Spanish National Historic Trail
  • 46 large roadless areas in the Ashley, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal, Uinta, and Dixie National Forests
  • The Oil Spring Mountain, White River Riparian, Badger Wash, Lower Green River, Lears Canyon, Nine Mile Canyon, San Rafael Canyon, Rock Art, Beaver Dam Slope, Mormon Mesa Ely, Beaver Dam Slope, Kane Springs, Mormon Mesa, Rainbow Gardens, and River Mountains Areas of Critical Environmental Concern
  • The Lower Green River, Muddy River, and Meadow Valley Wash Wild and Scenic Rivers
  • The Clover Mountains, Delamar Mountains, Arrow Canyon, and Black Mountain Wildernesses, along with the Oil Spring Mountain and Demaree Wilderness Study Areas and four proposed Forest Service wilderness areas

As you might expect, environmental activists have their eye on this immense project and are going over each alternative with a fine-toothed comb. They aren't necessarily opposed to the line. One now-defunct enviro group in the region famously campaigned for a similarly long transmission line in 2010. The thought of moving renewable energy across state lines is compelling to many enviros, even though the TransWest project could just as easily be used to carry power from Wyoming's also-burgeoning natural gas fracking fields.

But one of the project's most important potential effects doesn't show up in the DEIS at all: By providing a way to move up to 3,000 megawatts of electrical power of whatever flavor from central Wyoming to Southwestern cities, the Transwest Express would remove the main obstacle to greater wind development in Wyoming -- and that could have catastrophic effects on Wyoming's eagle populations.

Wyoming is turning out to be crucial habitat for eagle populations across an astonishingly wide stretch of western North America. The state has a fair number of eagles who are resident year-round, but it also plays host to wintering eagles from as far away as Alaska and the Canadian Far West. What's more, the state is a prime location for eagles from more southern territories who are fleeing their increasingly warm traditional territoriies in the wake of climate change.

With migrants from more than a thousand miles away regularly visiting Wyoming, removing the state's natural speed bump to wind development could make Wyoming a mortality sink for eagles across half a continent. Even though California turbines seem to kill more eagles, according to this week's study in the Journal of Raptor Research, Wyoming rivals our state with far fewer turbines installed. In fact, if you omit Altamont Pass from consideration as that study's authors did, Wyoming turbines would seem on average far deadlier to eagles than California's, killing about one eagle for every 40-45 megawatts of wind turbine generating capacity between 2009 and June 2012. California's equivalent figure for 2009 to June 2012, with 13 eagle deaths recorded (excluding Altamont) by about 4,973 megawatts' worth of turbines at the end of 2012 (again excluding Altamont), turns out to be one dead eagle recorded for every 380 or so megawatts of capacity.

Those are very rough figures, and they don't take into account growth in both states' wind turbine capacities between 2009 and 2012. Nor do they account for mortalities not verified in the Journal of Raptor Research study. But they do hint that Wyoming might be a horrible place to mix wind turbines and eagles. Which means that any project that artificially makes it more lucrative to put wind turbines in Wyoming may not be the best of ideas.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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