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Don't Pass Me By, Part 2 - TransWest Express Shows Challenges in Building Long-Distance Transmission

At the time it was proposed way back in 2005, the TransWest Express Transmission Project seemed like a straightforward idea — bring renewable energy from Wyoming, then (and now) one of the country’s biggest producers of wind power, to help meet increasing customer demand for electricity in the Desert Southwest. And enabling renewable energy to get to market would seem to align with political trade winds. But while the project’s goals couldn’t have been clearer, its 18-year path to final approval illustrates the numerous hurdles faced by long-distance energy projects and the need for change if progress is to be made toward energy goals. In today’s RBN blog, we’ll look at TransWest’s long road to approval, the difficulties in getting new energy infrastructure built and the long-term repercussions of those delays, and some permitting-reform proposals that might shorten project timelines.

As we outlined in Part 1 of this series, permitting for infrastructure projects — from oil and gas pipelines to transmission lines and offshore wind farms — is a well-known problem with many contributing factors but no easy solutions. Almost everyone acknowledges the benefit of having interested parties and stakeholders weigh in on major proposals to build or expand energy infrastructure, and credible regulations and appropriate safeguards are essential. Still, the reality is that the permitting process for some important projects can drag on for years and prevent others from ever becoming a reality. We looked in detail at Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), the current poster child for permitting challenges, which still faces an uncertain future even though the company says construction is more than 90% complete. (See our weekly NATGAS Appalachia report for the latest on MVP.)

Let’s start with a quick look at how the U.S. power grid was set up and how that differs from what we’ll need in the future, something the TransWest project was designed to address. Most of today’s grid was built in the 1960s and ’70s and designed to bring electricity generated by fossil-fired power plants, big hydroelectric facilities and nuclear stations to the areas that need energy. That approach has served the U.S. exceedingly well over the decades, but in recent years there’s been a big push to make renewable energy — mostly wind and solar — a much bigger part of the U.S. generation mix. And because many of the country’s best sites for large-scale wind and solar projects are far from population centers, that means more long-distance transmission lines will be required to move that power to where it’s needed.

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