Energy & Environment

Power Alignment

Four Western states agree to back a "superhighway" for electricity.
by | June 2005

The biggest energy problem in the American West is the region's wide open spaces. The most fertile coal fields and the windiest plains are located deep in the interior. But the cities with the most new lights to turn on--think Las Vegas or San Diego--sit hundreds of miles away on the far side of vast deserts and towering mountains. Moving power over such distances is a logistical, economic and political challenge.

California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming think they've got an answer. The governors of those four states agreed in April to work together on building a 1,300-mile "superhighway" for electricity. The so-called Frontier Line is a massive undertaking. When finished, perhaps a decade from now, the high-voltage line would carry enough electricity to power 12 million homes. The governors believe the Frontier Line will strengthen the reliability of the electric system and stimulate development of wind power, geothermal power and other renewables. Energy-rich Wyoming and Utah stand to make millions of dollars sending electricity to cities on the coast; customers in California and Las Vegas stand to save millions on their electricity bills.

The project may also emerge as a model for interstate cooperation in shoring up the electric grid, an issue that gained in importance after California's 2000-01 electricity crisis and the Northeast's 2003 blackout. "This is a wonderful example of how Utahns and Californians, cowboys and city slickers, Republicans and Democrats can come together and evaluate the needs of a whole region," says Kevin Knight, Utah's acting energy administrator.

Environmentalists view the proposal differently. Much of the power flowing over the Frontier Line will be derived from Wyoming's vast coal reserves. None of the power plants currently proposed in Wyoming plan to use new coal-burning methods that reduce emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. "We have a lot of power plant proposals in our state now," says Kirk Koepsel, a Sierra Club spokesman in Wyoming. "And what we're seeing is not the use of these newest technologies but the same old technology used a generation ago."

Representatives of the four states say that half of the Frontier Line's power will come from wind energy and half from "clean coal." But the actual power mix will largely depend upon what California, the biggest consumer of that power, decides it wants to buy. If Californians are willing to pay extra for cleaner energy--regardless of whether it is produced in-state or out--less smog will hang over the Rockies. In an April speech, Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said that he did not believe the power should come from coal, "unless the coal is extremely clean."

The Frontier Line, however, is still in its earliest planning stages. The states have yet to prove feasibility, set technical standards or attract the private investors who will have to pony up as much as $5 billion to make it happen. "A project of this size has a chicken-and-egg problem," says Doug Larson, executive director of the Western Interstate Energy Board. "The generators won't commit to building generation in Wyoming because there's no transmission yet. But the guys interested in transmission don't want to be first because there's no load yet."


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