JACKSON — The United States cannot meet President Obama’s goal of reaching 80 percent “clean energy” by 2035 without a massive upgrade and modernization of the electrical grid — an endeavor that will create jobs, but that will also raise electrical rates in the short term.

The investment is critical to increasing the use of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources, as well as cleaner coal technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration, said Steve Black, counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“The importance of modernizing the electricity grid in this nation really cannot be overstated,” said Black.

Wyoming has much at stake. It’s prolific coal mining industry supplies more than 45 percent of the nation’s coal, and utilities are hesitant to build new coal facilities until carbon capture and sequestration technologies are made more affordable. Wyoming also has one of the nation’s best onshore wind resources, with developers proposing plans for 12,000 megawatts or more.

More electrical transmission will be key for both preserving Wyoming’s coal industry and creating a new wind energy export industry, according to Black.

“Wyoming, for a small state, it is truly at the epicenter of all of what we’re doing in the West, particularly on energy,” said Black.

Black discussed Wyoming’s role in meeting the president’s clean energy goals during a meeting of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority today in Jackson, an event that attracted about 100 professionals in the electrical generation and transmission industry.

Black emphasized Interior’s work in identifying renewable energy zones and energy corridors throughout the West, and acknowledged the difficulties in matching renewable energy resources in low population areas, such as Wyoming, to big load centers in the West such as California and the Northwest.

Representatives of PacifiCorp, TransWest Express, TransCanada and other power companies said that environmental science and policy implementation often varies greatly among a handful of federal agencies involved in permitting interstate transmission, making it extremely difficult to connect new energy facilities in the West.

Black asked industry and state officials to share their concerns with Interior. He noted that Secretary Salazar implemented a multi-agency memorandum of understanding creating single-source federal contacts for such multi-state projects, and asked industry officials to advise Interior officials on how to improve the program.

“I understand the concern about permitting on public lands, but this administration has tried to be proactive,” said Black, adding that Salazar’s revamping of oil and gas permitting was intending to avoid delays caused by litigation against poorly planned energy projects.

Underscoring the Interior’s commitment to “streamlining” permitting, Black said that next week, the U.S. Forest Service will announce new policy guidance regarding protections for golden and bald eagles, as well as new guidelines for siting wind turbines. He said the Bureau of Land Management is preparing new guidelines to promote renewable energy on public lands throughout the West.

Black also addressed Salazar’s December executive order reversing a Bush-era action limiting the BLM’s ability to grant special protections for potential wilderness areas.

“What has not been made clear in the press is it’s a straightforward order that restores authority to BLM that was granted to it in 1976,” said Black, referring to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act extending authority to BLM to preserve some lands.

Salazar claims that the BLM, with its multiple-use goal, can review more than 200 million acres of BLM land not currently under wilderness protection for such a designation.

“I want to emphasize that with respect to renewable and conventional (energy projects), that order should have no effect on existing projects,” said Black.

Cassidy & Associates executive vice president Tom Dennis, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, said he doesn’t hold out hope that the House of Representatives will move at all on energy legislation in the coming year.

He said very few members of the House or Senate appreciate the critical role that a modernized grid plays in meeting the nation’s energy ambitions. The Senate is much further along on energy issues than members of the House.

As for solar and wind energy developers who are counting on extensions of tax incentives, Dennis said there’s not much appetite among Congress.

“Unfortunately, the answer is going to be ‘Let the market take care of that,’” said Dennis.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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