Get Ready for a new American West: Who Sacrifices What to Meet California’s Electricity Demand?

Hundreds of active turbines produce power at PacificCorps' Ekola Flats wind farm.
Turbines at PacificCorp’s Ekola Flats wind farm outside Medicine Bow, Wyo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is the Aug. 25, 2022, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

Sammy Roth’s newsletter today which is well worth looking at.

But not every Western community is embracing renewable energy — and it’s often hard to blame them.

As my colleagues and I traveled across Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Nevada, we spent time with a biologist who worries about wind turbines killing golden eagles; a rancher who fears Anschutz’s power line will industrialize his rural backcountry; and a National Park Service official who says the power line will interrupt scenic views on the road to a national monument. There are many such conflicts across the West, some of which involve clean power projects threatening sacred Native American sites.

Global warming is still the overriding concern — at least for me, a 30-year-old Los Angeles resident worried about a future of more dangerous heat waves, droughts, megafloods, wildfires, infectious diseases and rising seas. These changes should be alarming for everyone, everywhere, in my view. There’s no spot on planet Earth immune to the climate crisis.

But our road trip gave me pause.

Yes, the landscapes and communities we explored are distressingly vulnerable to climate change. But who am I to tell the people who live and work and play in these rural places that they’re missing the big picture? How is it fair for me to conclude that parts of the West are worth sacrificing to meet California’s demand for large amounts of electricity?

And yet Governor Newsome is now trying to keep Diablo Canyon open; and there is funding for nuclear in the IRA.

Anyway, here is Roth’s roundup of ideas..

As I’ve learned over eight years reporting on energy in the American West, there are plenty of opportunities to build bridges and seek out middle ground.

That could involve big cities working with small towns — especially towns losing fossil fuel jobs — to help those rural communities actually reap the economic benefits of clean energy. That’s what Los Angeles is trying to do in Utah’s Millard County, where the nation’s second-largest city is preparing to shutter a coal-fired power plant it’s operated for decades.

As we’ve seen in Kemmerer, Wyoming, there was not need to involve big cities, just big bucks from Bill Gates, and probably the feds. One wonders whether LA has enough of its own problems to solve.

It could also involve government agencies and conservationists mapping out the most sensitive habitats, and prohibiting wind and solar farms in those spots — while promoting clean energy development in less sensitive areas. That’s what California and the federal government have tried to do with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

Jon has mentioned this before.. we all agree that this is the way to go.. but what is keeping it from happening elsewhere? Lack of federal or state leadership? We have a D federal admin and several western states have D govs, so it must not be politics.  And what if we map all those sites and they do not add up to the amounts needed?

It almost certainly involves going big on rooftop solar power in major cities such as L.A. The more solar panels installed on homes, parking lots and warehouses, the fewer sprawling solar and wind farms will be needed to eliminate fossil fuels — which is one reason many climate activists are furious with a California proposal to slash rooftop solar incentives.

Stronger collaboration among Western states could also help. Right now, power-grid operators from California to Montana share relatively little electricity, even when one of them has extra solar or wind capacity that could help keep the lights on in a state facing a power-supply crunch. Although there are political pitfalls to overcome, a coordinated Western electric grid could help phase out fossil fuels in the West while (somewhat) reducing the need for new clean energy infrastructure.

A man in a hard hat stands on a staircase next to a huge wind turbine, whose blade is seen above.
Laine Anderson, PacifiCorp’s director of wind operations, stands next to a turbine at the Ekola Flats wind farm outside Medicine Bow, Wyo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Farms and ranches offer another intriguing opportunity. As I’ve written previously, building solar projects on farmland is one way to avoid damaging pristine wildlife habitat, while also reducing water use in drought-stressed regions such as California’s Central Valley. And scientists have found that reducing cattle grazing is one of the best ways to restore Western ecosystems.

Um.. don’t we need farms to produce food?  And turbines don’t seem to bother cattle all that much, so how does that relate?

But as always, there are complications. Although some farmers and ranchers have embraced solar and wind energy as a new source of income, others see industrial renewable energy projects as a threat to their agricultural way of life. It’s a topic I’ll be covering soon as part of the next story in our Repowering the West series.

Which brings me to one last point: Seeking out middle ground is extremely worthwhile, and necessary to speed up the clean energy transition. But all the creative problem-solving in the world won’t make everyone happy.

It’s pretty much impossible to build a clean energy project with zero opposition and zero consequences — no matter how much care you might take to protect ecosystems and work with rural communities. Confronting the climate crisis will almost certainly result in some ruined views, dead eagles and job losses in towns that can’t afford them.

That may sound harsh, but so is living in a small apartment without air conditioning during a brutal heat wave, in a neighborhood with few shade trees and no public parks. So is going to elementary school in the shadow of a polluting oil refinery, and struggling to secure safe drinking water after your well runs dry, and fleeing from wildfire after wildfire.

Wouldn’t the solution to these be.. establishing shade trees and public parks (role of city government?). The link goes to a Grist article making the case that California does a poorer job of regulating drilling in neighborhoods than Wyoming and Texas and not about refineries at all.

Al Muratsuchi, the state assemblymember who introduced A.B. 345, pointed to the political power of the oil industry as the culprit for the bill’s failure. “The reason why the bill died in committee with three Democrats voting against the bill is not only the political power of big oil but also the political power of the labor unions that represent workers who have a stake in the oil industry,” Muratsuchi said. “We talk a lot about how science should prevail over politics. In this case, the science is clear — but the politics prevailed.”

In response to a request for comment, a WSPA spokesperson said that the oil and gas industry does not oppose setbacks wholesale, but that “a one-size-fits-all approach for an entire state for an issue like this is rarely good public policy.”

Interesting that “Still, California is the nation’s seventh-largest oil-producing state.”

The “well runs dry” link goes to an article that says:

The San Joaquin Valley’s water well problems stem from a complex mix of infrastructure failure, contamination and record-dry conditions.

I don’t see how wind farms in Wyoming will help with lack of urban forests and parks, or problems with setback regulation in California, or infrastructure failure and contamination.  In the long term it can help (to some extent) with wildfires and droughts.. but only over a very long term.  And wildfires and droughts also affect the states to be industrialized. Until then, we need to deal with those issues as best we can, both in LA and throughout the West.



6 thoughts on “Get Ready for a new American West: Who Sacrifices What to Meet California’s Electricity Demand?”

  1. Utilities are not your friends.

    In 2021 a study at Michigan Technological University revealed that far more work is needed to ensure the owners of self-generated electricity systems are not unjustly subsidizing electric utilities.

    The cost of subsidizing, manufacturing, transporting, erecting, maintaining then removing just one wind turbine eyesore bat and bird killer would take a thousand subscribers to energy self-reliance. Microgrid technologies are destined to enhance tribal sovereignty, free communities from electric monopolies and net-metering only gives control back to utilities enabled by moral hazard.

  2. Boundaries promote us vs them. (Such as,” Right now, power-grid operators from California to Montana share relatively little electricity…”) It’s not California’s energy problem; it’s our problem.

  3. “Um.. don’t we need farms to produce food?” Yes – “agrivoltaics” is a new form of “multiple-use.”

    “And what if we map all those sites and they do not add up to the amounts needed?” “To achieve the current administration’s decarbonization goals, we are going to need 10.3 million acres of land (by 2050) to achieve a high decarbonization and electrification scenario.” Harder to do that without multiple-use.


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