November 3, 2011

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Colorado Lawyers Bring Green Energy West

This article was originally published in
Law Week Colorado, October 2011

Copyright 2011 - Posted by Permission

By Matt Masich
- There's plenty of sun and wind in the western half of the country that's just waiting to be converted into electricity. You can build solar arrays and wind turbines to harness sun and wind power, but then what? Without high-voltage transmission lines, there's no way for the renewable energy to reach consumers.

There are a lot of regulatory hurdles to clear before the U.S. Department of the Interior will approve construction of transmission lines across the broad swaths of federal land that cover much of the west. The Obama administration recently fast-tracked the process for seven power transmission projects seeking government approval.

Navigating the regulatory process to get electricity from renewable sources to its end users is the job of a dedicated teams of professionals, including lawyers like Jim Sanderson, a partner in Ryley Carlock & Applewhite's Denver office.

Ryley Carlock is National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, counsel to SunZia, one of the fast-tracked transmission projects. Colorado lawyer Van Wilgus is SunZia's general counsel.

SunZia would stretch 460 miles of "extra-high voltage" power lines from New Mexico to Arizona. "There's a vast area of  east-central New Mexico that has a lot of high, steady wind potential," Sanderson said. "But if you build wind turbines, there's no way to get the energy out." Those regions of New Mexico haven't seen major power-grid improvements in decades, he said.

Meanwhile, California and Arizona have laws requiring certain percentages of their energy to come from renewable sources. Those states don't produce enough on their own to meet those requirements and would benefit from using power from New Mexico wind farms.

SunZia began the application process three years ago. Sanderson said he hopes the fast-track designation will help "cut through some of the regulatory red tape." The fast-tracking doesn't guarantee approval, but it does mean a decision will come sooner rather than later.

Even if you know the proposed starting and ending points of the transmission lines, it's a challenge to figure out which route the lines should take, he said. For one thing, there are no existing roads along most of the proposed routes. The Bureau of Land Management also has to issue an Environmental Impact Statement.

"There needs to be an environmental study to identify what the effects of build¬ing new, large power lines through the Southwest would be," Sanderson said. The power lines could affect endangered species, recreational areas or otherwise impact the socioeconomic health of a community.

"You end up with a handful of lines on the map," he said. "Then you have to analyze the effects of one line versus another to find which would be the least environmentally impactful."

A host of issues will arise during the planning process. It's part of Sanderson's role to look at those issues through the prism of legal precedent and figure out which need can become a reality, a number of government agencies will have to sign off on it.

"It's like a puzzle," Sanderson said. "You have to put together a piece at a time to figure out how to address legitimate impacts that need to be resolved."

Another of the fast-tracked transmis¬sion projects is the TransWest Express, whose parent company is the Denver-based Anschutz Corp. TransWest would stretch 725 miles from a proposed 1,000-turbine wind farm in southern Wyoming, through the northwest corner of Colorado into Utah, and then to Nevada.

TransWest's general counsel is Denver attorney Roxane Perruso. In-house counsel from both TransWest and Anschutz, as well as unspecified outside counsel, work on regulatory, contract, policy and environmental matters.

"This overall legal team, together with our colleagues from other project disciplines, are focused on continuing to advance the TWE Project and its progress, and we look forward to the day when construction and operations can begin," Per¬ruso said by email.

Both SunZia and TransWest hope to begin construction in the next several years and become operational well before the end of the decade.