The country's largest wind farm could help power California all the way from Wyoming. But first, it needs to get built.
There’s a Gold Rush right now happening in Wyoming — for wind. Billionaire developers are putting up wind turbines to help power California and turn the American West, long a place where fossil fuels ruled, into a green energy powerhouse.
But not everyone is happy. Today, we get into the challenges around what’s planned to be the largest wind farm in the country. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: L.A. Times energy reporter Sammy Roth
Read our “Repowering the West” series here
This power line could save California — and forever change the American West
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SAMMY (tape): I am here at a giant wind farm outside of Medicine Bow, Wyo., and it is very windy.
GUSTAVO: Sammy Roth is our energy reporter and this spring, he went to Wyoming to see construction on what will eventually be America's largest wind farm.
SAMMY (tape): One of the craziest things about this wind farm that we're going to see is that they're basically building it on spec.
GUSTAVO: So yeah: The wind farm owners don’t even have a buyer yet. But California is trying to go carbon neutral by 2045, which means it's going to need a lot of green energy. So there's a good chance the state will eventually need to rely on Wyoming.
SAMMY (tape): What makes this such a good place to build wind power?
INTERVIEWEE (tape): It's the way the wind comes through the mountains here. It is windy in a lot of areas.
GUSTAVO: But this wind farm has taken years to develop. And actually getting all that power to California? It’s turning into an issue. Some conservationists and residents who live along the power line aren’t happy about it.
INTERVIEWEE (tape): We can't afford to squander our opportunity to save the little fragments of wildness that we have left.
GUSTAVO: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. It's Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Today: What it takes to make America's largest wind farm operational, and who bears the brunt of that?
Sammy, welcome to The Times.
SAMMY: Happy to be here, Gustavo.
GUSTAVO: Man, when I heard you were doing a story about a huge wind farm for California, I thought, OK, maybe he's going to Imperial County down on the U.S.-Mexico border or higher up north in Shasta County. I didn't think Wyoming.
SAMMY: Yeah, I mean, this is the biggest wind farm that's being proposed and built in the western United States and the country as well. So it’s, you know, if you want to write about wind energy and you want to do it on a big scale, this is the place to go. I'd actually been to this site once before, back in 2016, in a previous reporting job. And, you know, that was 10 years into their process. And now it's five years later, six years later, and they're finally building the thing. So I thought, OK, I want to go back and see how things have changed and see the process.
So basically what we did is we went up to Wyoming to the construction site of what’s going to be the biggest wind farm in the United States. And then after seeing the site there we took a road trip along the route of what’s going to be a 730-mile power line to carry all that wind energy to Southern California. The guy who showed us around up at the wind farm, his name is Bill Miller. He’s one of the top executives at Anschutz Corp., which is the company building that project.
SAMMY (tape): How many wind turbines are you guys gonna put out here?
BILL (tape): 600-plus…. There aren't many projects that can compete with this on scope or scale.
SAMMY: So it's, you know, 600 wind turbines spread out across a ranch that is 500 square miles. It's slightly bigger than the city of Los Angeles. It's huge. I spent hours and hours driving around that place. It's endless.
SAMMY (tape): Sammy: Yes, we are…
SAMMY: It's just the kind of thing that you have to see in person to really appreciate the scale and the sort of grandeur of the place. These rolling hills and these big open countrysides and snow-capped mountains in the distance. You just kind of can't believe that somebody is doing something on this scale of trying to build out this place. It really gives you a sense of, what was the West like before and what might it be like in the future.
One of the reasons this project is such a big deal is because California and Los Angeles have these really strong renewable energy goals. I mean, California has it in law that we've gotta be 100% clean electricity by 2045. Los Angeles is trying to do it 10 years earlier, by 2035. And it's not that you couldn't do that without Wyoming wind, but the studies that have been done that I've seen show that it's certainly easier.
GUSTAVO: So this wind farm, then; where exactly is it situated in Wyoming, and what exactly are the plans for it?
SAMMY: So construction is just now getting underway. They haven't actually propped up any of the turbines yet. We're talking southern Wyoming, like along the I-80 corridor there near a city called Rawlins in Carbon County, Wyoming. Carbon County, by the way, named for fossil fuels, it has a long history of coal and oil and gas, and now wind is the big thing there. They've been working on getting this thing permitted and built for 15 years, all sorts of environmental reviews, redesigns of the turbines to, you know, minimize bird issues. That – it's been a process, but the goal right now is to have it online in like 2025 and powering California.
BILL (tape): What we're all going for, I think in the end, is gonna be a cleaner energy sector.
SAMMY (tape): Did you think when you started in 2008, that here in 2022, you'd still be doing this?
BILL (tape): No. Ha ha ha. We had no idea it would take this long.
SAMMY: The idea is that they're also gonna be building, not just these hundreds of wind turbines that are frigging giant, you know, hundreds of feet tall, but a power line 730 miles long across four states, across parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, to bring this clean electricity all the way to the border with California.
SAMMY: It was really fascinating. I mean, driving the route of this power line that's gonna be built. I mean, this thing is gonna cross farmlands and ranches and beautiful rivers and small towns and national forests. And you know, pretty much any Western scenery you can imagine, this thing's going to bisect it and cut right across. And it's interesting because there's a very strong need for new power lines in order to get to 100% renewable energy, not just in California, but across the whole country. It's gonna be a whole lot easier to do this with more of these electric lines that bring the renewable energy from where it exists, from where there's strong wind, from where there's strong sunlight and open land, to the big cities that need all this power.
BILL (tape): California, the desert Southwest, they need a reliable source of power and they need it in large quantities.
GUSTAVO: Sammy, you mentioned that this wind farm is in Wyoming, in a part of Wyoming where there's a lot of wind, but how would this wind farm factor in the unpredictability of it?
SAMMY: Actually, one of the valuable things about having wind from different places, like having wind in state, in California, and wind from Wyoming, or maybe from New Mexico, is that the wind blows at different times in different places. In California, maybe you're getting a bunch of wind farms that blow really strong from noon to 2 to 3 p.m. And then you can get wind in from Wyoming that's particularly good, you know, 5, 6, 7 p.m., that the more geographic diversity you have with renewable energy, and this is true for solar too, the easier it is to fill in those gaps throughout the day.
GUSTAVO: Is climate change affecting though how and how much wind blows?
SAMMY: Yes, probably. It's not incredibly well understood, but there do seem to be some effects there. And there are researchers who are working on that.
GUSTAVO: And there wasn't a place in California that could handle this? Like they couldn't put more wind turbines out in like Palm Springs where there's so many right now?
SAMMY: There's definitely some wind that hasn't been tapped yet in California that would be good. Like in Palm Springs, for instance, so if you drive on the 10 all the way out there, you see those old turbines. A lot of those old turbines from the ’80s and ’90s are getting replaced right now with bigger and more powerful ones that can generate more electricity. So that's happening in a lot of places, but really the strongest and best winds in California have already been exploited. So as you look at the massive amounts of new, renewable power that we need to meet our climate goals and to provide reliable power, that's why there's a lot of attention looking out of state to other places. And arguably the advantage to California of this wind is, not only is it, you know, just really strong wind, but it's especially good. It blows throughout the day. It blows a really high percentage of hours and it blows in the evening and into the night, which is, as people might know, is when California's been kind of having trouble keeping the lights on. We have these big heat waves, it gets hot in the evening, solar panels stop generating. And then it's like, where's our clean power coming from? This is a resource that could help with that.
GUSTAVO: So is all this power going to be used across all the Western states? Kind of like how the Colorado River serves as water for most of them?
SAMMY: I think long-term, it's pretty likely that some of this Wyoming and New Mexico wind that's so good is gonna go to a lot of places. But this project in particular, which is, you know, being proposed by this billionaire developer, Phil Anschutz, the idea here is to sell it into California for the most part.
When you drive the route of this project, you realize what the challenges in that are. You realize that there are gonna be people who don't want to look at it. People who are gonna be worried, how does it affect the birds and the plants and the flora and fauna that live in this place. That there are gonna be people who think that they should be paid more to let it cross their land than is being offered by these power companies. So there's a need for this stuff, but this project is also a reminder that it's really, really hard to do. You need to have a lot of money and a lot of time and patience, the way things work right now, to work through all the landowners, to work through the environmental reviews and to really bring something like this to fruition.
GUSTAVO: More after the break.
GUSTAVO: So, Sammy, you mentioned that this wind farm in Wyoming is huge – it’s as big as the city of Los Angeles, which, damn, that’s a lot. But how is it looking right now? And how is it changing the ecological habitats? Because you mentioned that construction's just starting.
SAMMY: Just like with almost anywhere you build a wind farm or a solar farm, there's lots of questions and concern that's been raised about how does this affect the ecosystem where this is being built. In northwest Colorado, you know, while we were traveling the route, we spent some time on this ranch called Cross Mountain Ranch that's owned by the Boeddeker family, this, you know, real estate fortune based out of Southern California. And they bought this big ranch in Colorado. And we spent some time out there with this guy Erik Glenn who runs a cattlemen's group in Colorado and has worked with the Boeddekers. And he explained to us that they were just horrified by the idea of this power line crossing their beautiful ranch and going across the Yampa River at one of the most scenic spots on the ranch.
GLENN (tape): The issue I think for me, as I look at it, is how do we balance the need for more renewable energy, with the need for conserving important natural resources for the future? Be it for wildlife, be it for just scenic enjoyment, be it for recreation, be it for whatever.
SAMMY: You've got issues with, how is this affecting sage grouse habitat…
GLENN (tape): So, uh, the greater sage grouse is a species that's been in decline for several years. It's been constantly on the verge of being listed under the Endangered Species Act and…
SAMMY (tape): This is the bird that puffs up its chest and does the mating dance and everything?
GLENN (tape): Right. Exactly.
SAMMY: You've got issues with that. It seems pretty likely that a certain number of golden eagles will probably be killed by these wind turbines. And then, it fundamentally changes the look and feel of a place.
SAMMY (tape): So Erik, tell us, uh, I mean, we're standing here by the Yampa River. It's uh, it's pretty beautiful. Tell us about this spot. Where are we?
GLENN (tape): One of the prettiest places, uh, I think in, in the West and, uh, kind of a, a fairly unspoiled part of the state and the part of the world.
SAMMY: You have this big wide open ranch that looks like the Old West, and then you put 600 wind turbines up on it that are, you know, 2, 3, 400 feet tall. It’s very different. And there's obviously environmentalists out there, and there are people who live in places where some of these wind farms are being built, who don't like to see it.
SAMMY (tape): So we're standing here, uh, outside of Roosevelt City, Utah, historically a big oil and gas town and the, uh, TransWest Express power lines would run right across the sewer lagoon facility here that the city owns. You definitely got folks in town here who are not happy about seeing another power line running across the farmland and so close to town.
GUSTAVO: How do ecologists balance that? On one hand, you're getting clean power. We need it for climate change. On the other hand, you're killing birds. You're destroying what was somewhat pristine terrain.
SAMMY: Yes, somewhat pristine because it has a long ranching history. So the landscape has arguably been pretty degraded to begin with in this particular spot. One study that I find really interesting, the Audubon Society, which is the authority on birds and protecting birds in the United States, they did a study a couple years ago, looking at how climate change is going to affect migratory bird species in North America. And they found that hundreds of bird species, migratory birds, are gonna be at risk of going extinct or lose the vast majority of their range because of the planet warming up, which tells you that you really, really need to do something about climate change or birds are gonna be in trouble.
There are obviously serious issues with eagles and with other migratory and endangered birds, and how many of them are gonna be killed by wind turbines. And there's lots and lots of energy and effort being put into how to minimize that. It does somewhat pale in comparison to the effects of climate change, but that doesn't mean it's not a serious issue. And one that a lot of folks are real worked up about, understandably.
GUSTAVO: In your story, you mentioned that the proposed power lines get a route through what's now a coal plant, and that, to me, that's pretty symbolic of what's the future for them. How do the people at the coal plant feel about it?
SAMMY: Yeah, this is a coal plant outside of a town in Utah called Delta, Utah, and it's actually Intermountain Power Plant. It's been the largest electricity source for the city of Los Angeles for like 30 or 40 years. I mean, L.A. got this thing built in the ’80s and it continues to provide, you know, 15 or 20% of the city's power.
Even preexisting to this power line, L.A. has been making plans to tear down this coal plant and to replace it with something cleaner, something that's gonna burn gas at first, but then switch over to hydrogen, which can be a clean fuel. So, you know, then you've got the power line running through now, and that could be another source that could replace this coal for L.A., this wind from Wyoming.
And the people in this town, Delta, they fought to try to protect the coal plant. I mean, they definitely wanted to keep it. It's hundreds of jobs, it's lots and lots of tax revenues. But ultimately they've come around and sort of been forced to accept – coal is going away and they gotta take what they can get, which is this, you know, smaller and cleaner power plant. It won't be quite as good for them, but it's better than nothing.
GUSTAVO: And so this power line comes in the American West, which has been a source of so much coal, oil, fossil fuels. How is that industry preparing for this new wind farm and the energy that it plans to produce and ultimately replace?
SAMMY: Well, I mean, I think this wind farm and this line are a pretty good sign that fossil fuels are on the way out.
I mean, you have some of the wealthiest people in the country and these big power companies investing tens and tens of billions of dollars in solar and wind and lithium mines and power lines and geothermal. And you've got that, the bill that just passed Congress, the Inflation Reduction Act, that's gonna put $369 billion towards projects like this and other climate change measures. So it's, I mean, fossil fuel companies are continuing to fight to protect themselves and protect their market share. But this project's a pretty good reminder that they're starting to fail in that.
GUSTAVO: More after the break.
GUSTAVO: So, Sammy, when I think about Wyoming, I think of one of the reddest of the red states. I mean, they just kicked out Liz Cheney from her congressional seat, for crying out loud. So how did a wind farm, a project of this size for clean energy, of all things: How did Wyoming approve it?
SAMMY: Yeah, they had to strike deals with 450 private landowners along the route of this line. In addition to, you know, like environmental reviews for five or six different federal agencies. And I think like 12 or 14 counties and multiple state governments. I mean, this is why it took, you know, 15 years to get to this point. A lot of the landowners along the route said, Great, gimme your money and I'll let you cross my land, that's awesome. And others were really unhappy. They were concerned about how it would affect their farmland or their views.
The Boeddekers fought tooth and nail and did everything they could to prevent billionaire developer Phil Anschutz from crossing their land with his power line. And ultimately he paid them enough money that they said fine, we'll do it. But it went to court and they battled over it for a couple of years.
It was definitely a process. I mean, there's still a lot of Wyoming anti-wind sentiment. I mean, every year or two someone in the Legislature tries to get a law passed to, you know, dramatically raise taxes on wind power to try to either kill off the industry or make a lot more money from it, depending on how you look at it. But at the local level, in this county, Carbon County where this thing was proposed and in a couple of other spots in Wyoming where wind has become a big business, the local government, the, you know, city officials and local residents, they, at first they were freaked out and they said, what's this gonna mean for our fossil fuel jobs? What's this gonna mean for our landscapes and our ecosystems?
They studied it and they started to realize, well, fossil fuel jobs have been going away not just, not just for the last 10 years ’cause of climate change, but for the last 30 or 40 years, it's just been getting smaller and smaller. This seems like it could be a new source of revenue for us, of, of tax revenues, of property tax revenues. And this is gonna create jobs for the people who build these things. It's not gonna be the number of jobs of someone who works at a coal plant, ’cause you know, the construction jobs are there and then they kind of go away when it's finished being built, but it's something, and they worked through this and they worked with these companies and eventually they said, OK, this, this could be helpful for us.
WEICKUM (tape): So this new wind thing has really rocked a lot of boats because for a while there, they were looked at as the enemy. Every watt of power the wind farm makes is a watt of power the fossil fuels is not gonna sell.
SAMMY: I actually talked with Terry Weickum, the mayor of Rawlins — the town near the ranch where Anschutz is building his wind farm — and what he told me was that when wind developers first came to Carbon County, that the people there were scared to death, but eventually they came around.
WEICKUM (tape): The biggest part of having the wind farms take place in our vicinity is taxes. Six percent of a few billion dollars is a lot of money. So we educated ourself and got comfortable with it. Just like probably you were scared to death the first time you got on a bicycle, ’cause it could hurt you. But then you found out how to use it. And now you have a wind farm. Ha ha.
SAMMY: Other parts of the state maybe still see it as scary, but in the places where these things are being built, there's actually quite a bit of support for it now in red Wyoming.
GUSTAVO: And you've mentioned already a couple of times this guy, Philip Anschutz. Who is he?
SAMMY: Well, he, if you ever have been to the former Staples Center, the Crypto.com arena in downtown L.A., he owns that. He owns the Kings hockey team. He owns the Coachella music festival. He used to own a railroad and the Regal Cinemas, too. I mean, he's fabulously wealthy. He's based out of Denver. He’s pretty reclusive. You don't see him out in the headlines a lot. He doesn't talk to the press. He wouldn't talk to me for the story.
You know, he's been in oil and gas for a long time. That's how he made his first fortune out in the West. He struck it rich on a good oil strike, and it may seem incongruous to see him becoming this, you know, renewable energy baron now in the 21st century, but he owns this big ranch. It's one of the windiest spots in the country. His executive who oversaw this ranch came to him and said, I think we could make a killing here, building wind turbines. And, you know, he's a businessman and conservative politics and oil and gas aside, he embraced that and said, great, let's spend billions of dollars and make this happen.
And they've already in advance of major construction activities spent hundreds of millions of dollars, you know, getting this thing ready to go. They're doing this without a buyer. they don't actually have a confirmed customer for who's going to purchase all of this electricity at the end of the day. They're basically building it on spec. They're really confident that Los Angeles or some other party or parties in California are gonna come forward and agree to purchase this stuff when it's ready to go. But it’s really unique in that they're doing it without a buyer up front.
GUSTAVO: Wow. And yeah, I mean, if someone like Anschutz is betting on wind energy, they're not doing it for charity. He wants to make money off of it. So…
SAMMY: He's definitely not a climate activist.
GUSTAVO: Ha. If he's doing it, I'm sure then other billionaires are following.
SAMMY: Absolutely. I mean, Warren Buffett is building a lot of similar projects in the same part of the country, and it's happening elsewhere, too.
GUSTAVO: Is there anything besides money that's driving these folks even? Are they saying anything at all about like, yeah, we know we need to have cleaner energy, it's not just about money, but it's about helping the environment?
SAMMY: With Anschutz, no, I think it's about making money.
SAMMY: The only statements that he's made publicly about climate change are to the effect of, I know it's happening, but I don't think it's as bad as people say it's going to be. So, no, I don't think this is coming from a place of trying to do good because of climate change. It's – wind and solar have gotten pretty inexpensive to build, relatively speaking, and you can make a lot of money selling them, just like any other energy source.
GUSTAVO: On the other hand you do have, though, municipalities across the American West, if not the country, saying we do want this clean energy. So it's almost like a symbiotic relationship at that point.
SAMMY: It is. I mean, the fact that California has this 100% renewable energy target and, and Los Angeles as well, that has definitely played a significant role in driving the construction of these types of projects. But like you said, it's become a little bit of a virtuous cycle where that's helped to drive the costs down of the technology. And now the technology's gotten so cheap that even in parts of the country where you don't have these strong renewable-energy goals, lots and lots of solar and wind is being built. And probably the climate bill that just passed Congress is gonna accelerate this as well.
GUSTAVO: Finally, Sammy, yeah, you mentioned the bill. Is all of this worth it? Like with this project in particular, how much – I hate to use this term, but I'm gonna use it anyway: How much of a game-changer is this?
SAMMY: How much of a game changer is it? I think that this project is a very, very powerful symbol that the game has changed.
It's a project that's been in the works for 15 years. It took a long time to get to this point. But you know, when it started, it was utterly unique. There was, you know, very little like this, of this scale being thought up. Now stuff like this is happening everywhere. Maybe not quite of this size with, you know, 500-square-mile ranch and 600 wind turbines, but it's become par for the course. The game has changed.
It's difficult with all of these, you know, obstacles and potential negatives that exist to think about how do you go about solving climate change, then? How do you go about building the renewable energy that's needed and reducing emissions and sort of saving planet Earth and human civilization as we know it when there are all of these problems?
And the guy who runs the cattlemen’s land trust in Colorado, Erik Glenn, when we were talking about this, the way he put it to me was that you need to “thread the needle” when it comes to balancing climate change and land conservation and all of these other factors.
SAMMY (tape): Well, how do you thread the needle? Cause this is a conflict that's happening all over the western United States. How, I mean, I'm asking you to solve the problem right here, but no, seriously…So you need lots of renewable-energy infrastructure here and all over the West and you need lots of conservation and that's the conflict you’re talking about…
GLENN (tape): Right. And so how do you bring that power that you're gonna be generating far outside of the urban areas back in? You're gonna do it through more transmission lines. How do you, you know, keep that habitat intact for sage grouse, keep the habitat intact for elk, for deer, uh, to keep agriculture viable, to keep grazing on that property?
SAMMY: And it's challenging, but ultimately that's sort of the only way to think about it. How do you build projects in the places, solar and wind, where it has the least environmental damage and how do you route these power lines so that it goes mostly through lands where it's not gonna be damaging, where people are relatively OK with it? It's difficult to do. It takes a lot of planning. You've got to think about how does it affect every community along the way, and in these places and every ecosystem. But we don't really have a choice, I don't think, besides, figure out the sort of, you know, least-worst-case scenario for everyone and get at the big thing, which is climate change and the climate crisis.
GUSTAVO: Sammy, thank you so much for this conversation.
SAMMY: You're welcome.
GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of The Times. But before we get to the credits, a bit of news about this podcast.
You probably already noticed it with the title. We're no longer “daily news,” but “essential news.” Because I guess we weren't essential before? I kid, I kid, but that tweak gets to what the big change is. You already probably noticed that we're now doing only three new episodes a week. That's because we really wanna focus our energies on what matters and how we can best serve ustedes.
So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we're gonna stick to a schedule of sorts. Mondays, we're gonna bring you stories from around the world. Wednesday, something more focused on Southern California and the American West. And then Friday, the weird. Well… OK. More like profiles, culture, and, you know, just random randomness. This allows us to plan better and really bring our game. And of course we'll throw all of our plans away if huge, huge news happens like an alien invasion, or Beyoncé and the Weeknd collaborating on a new album or something, cause that's big news, you know? And that's it. That's the big announcement.
Oh, and no more mentions of Poochie at the end, because we are no longer the Poochie of podcasts, we never were. And thank you all to ustedes for making sure we never turn into the Poochie of podcasts. Yay. Just please, one final, uh, ask from your humble host. Just make sure we don't turn into the Frank Grimes of podcasts, you know? Anyways, where was I?
Oh yeah, the credits.
Shannon Lin and Kasia Broussalian were the jefas in this episode, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it.
Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
And special thanks to Jessica Chen for recording video for this story and letting us use the audio.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back on Friday, not tomorrow, Friday, with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.