Sammy Roth of the LA Times: Repowering The West

About 24% of the US population resides in the West, a region already profoundly affected by climate change. In 2021 nearly 95% of the American West was characterized by drought conditions, and anyone who lives on this side of the country knows that wildfires and rolling blackouts are now the norm rather than the exception. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Los Angeles Times energy reporter, Sammy Roth, about this energy-hungry region. We get an in-depth look at a big wind power project in Wyoming, examine the increasing water needs of one of California’s agricultural regions, and get a glimpse into the latest LA Times energy-related project, Repowering the West.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:18 Sammy Roth (SR) – It’s a little bit of a, you know, sort of go slow to go fast situation. There’s a need to speed up the construction of renewable energy really dramatically to get the emissions reductions in greenhouse gases that we need. But if you just try to do that too fast without thinking through this stuff you’re going to, you’re going to get stopped in a lot of places.

00:37 Narrator – About 24% of the US population resides in the West, a region already profoundly affected by climate change. In 2021 nearly 95% of the American West was characterized by drought conditions, and anyone who lives on this side of the country knows that wildfires and rolling blackouts are now the norm rather than the exception. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Los Angeles Times energy reporter, Sammy Roth, about this energy-hungry region. We get an in-depth look at a big wind power project in Wyoming, examine the increasing water needs of one of California’s agricultural regions, and get a glimpse into the latest LA Times energy-related project, Repowering the West.

01:40 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Sammy Roth. He’s an energy reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Sammy, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

01:48 Sammy Roth (SR) – Hey Alex, happy to be here.

01:50 AW – So you’ve been traveling quite a lot for your work with the LA Times, and you have a very bold project called Repowering the West. Why don’t you explain the general concept to listeners as it moves forward?

02:08 SR – So the project we’re calling it repowering the West. It’s a series of stories about how the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is reshaping landscapes and ecosystems and rural communities in different parts of the western United States. And what are the benefits and the opportunities of that and what are their challenges and the roadblocks to that. So we’re planning to do at least six stories in this series. And the first one that I reported out in in May, and it was just published recently by the Times, spent a week traveling across four states. So we started in Wyoming at the construction site of what’s going to be the largest wind farm in the United States in southern Wyoming.  And then we traveled across Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada going along the route of the power line that’s going to be built across 730 miles to get the electricity from this remote wind farm to Southern California where the where the energy is needed. So that was that was part one and several more parts to come.

03:08 AW – When you go on these on site projects, how are you able to carve a narrative out of looking at these big, seemingly impenetrable utility projects? It must be a challenge.

03:23 SR – It is a challenge and you know it gets easier when you’ve been doing this over a period of time, right? So I’ve been covering energy in the western United States for eight years and, you know, I’ve been to a lot of places like this before. In fact, this wind farm site in Wyoming I actually went to once before when I was at the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, I was there for the first time. Just about 6, gosh, just about six years ago. Time flies. So, you know, so I go to these places and I do get tours. You know, the developer of this wind farm. We can talk about Phil Anschutz. This billionaire who got his start in oil and gas and is now, you know, investing billions of dollars in wind so his, you know, his  lieutenant said, you know, took us out, me and her photographer and her three person video team and spent, you know, five or six hours showing us around the site and you know, answering questions. And, you know, recording video with us and then same thing along the route of the power line. We, you know, we spent, we spent a day with a critic of the project and a conservationist who thinks this is going to be really bad for the, you know, the local ecosystems and for the sage grouse and for golden eagles. On the route of the power line, we met with land owners who were unhappy. We met with people who are, you know, excited to see the jobs that the wind farm is going to bring. We met with someone from the National Park Service who’s not happy that the line is going to cross the road leading into dine. Or National Monument. We talked with all sorts of people. And, you know, after you spend a week on the road and you think about the larger context and why this is being built and what the need is and what it looks like on the ground, you know, ideas start to come together and you think, OK, here’s here’s how this add up adds up to and here’s what it means. And you try to make a narrative out of it.

05:10 AW – You mentioned Philip Anschutz. I think of T. Boone Pickens, another billionaire from the West who made his his money in the oil and gas industry, but then went very heavily into wind later on in life. What does that tell you about the renewable industry, that these old oil guys are getting into it?

05:34 SR – Well, I mean, I think what it tells you is that renewable energy is a big profitable business now. I mean, this is something that that climate advocates and clean energy advocates I think have been hoping for a long time would happen that the costs of wind and solar and other clean energy technologies would come down to the point where it would be, you know, it makes sense for people with lots and lots of money. And you know, big companies to invest in this not because, you know, it’s being mandated by government, but because they can, they can profit from it and. You know, that’s what that’s what Anschutz is doing the even in advance of. They don’t even have a customer for this wind project yet. I mean, they’re very confident they’re going to be able to sell this electricity into California, but you know, even without a customer they’ve already spent like something like $400 million building this thing essentially on spec and the total estimated. Investment that they’re going to have for the wind farm in the power line is $8 billion. So that that tells you that it expects to make a lot more than, you know than the $8 billion selling this energy. So it’s, you know, it’s a sign that renewable energy has matured and now we’ve got the inflation Reduction Act, the climate law that President Biden just signed. And that’s probably going to kick things up even a couple more notches. So it’s a good sign about where clean energy is headed.

06:47 AW – For sure. So in the past, when we’ve done pieces on sea change radio, we always talk about the power lines and the shortcomings. That the lines might have in terms of distance and efficiencies and you also mentioned the environmental costs and how it can encroach flora and fauna, why don’t you speak to what this Wyoming project how it’s approaching the distribution side of things? I mean, you mentioned that they don’t have a customer, but let’s talk about the transmission lines rather than just the turbines.

07:24 SR – I mean First off, the process of getting a transmission line, especially across this distance you know permitted and approved is pretty wild. I mean they’ve been working on this thing for 15 years. They had to go through a whole bunch of federal agencies, like a dozen counties, multiple state governments. And one of the biggest obstacles, they had 450 land owners, private land owners along the route that that got approved by the federal government. And they had to, you know, sort of negotiate individual deals with each of those land owners. Some holdouts and some folks who really didn’t want to see it happen. And they ultimately the money to town and Anschutz paid folks off and got him to be OK with it in the end. So that that was a that was a long process. But yeah, in terms of the environmental impacts, I, I mean they’re, you know, they’re really serious questions about this. They’re you know concerns about what it means for what it means for sage grouse and what it means for, you know, other birds and species along the route. You know it disturbs ecosystems, right? I mean, you think it’s just this linear feature running across the landscape and that’s that’s true to an extent. But, there are animals that are not going to want to go near these things or they’re going to crash into them. So it’s there’s no climate solution that is without costs and with big projects like this, what it comes down to is sort of weighing the costs and the benefits. I’m trying to construct the thing in a way, if you’re going to do it that that minimizes the impact and you know the the insurance folks will tell you they they went all sorts of out of their way to redesign, you know redesign their wind farm and route the power line to avoid the worst impacts and then. You know, you’ve got environmentalists and land owners along the route who, you know, will tell you this was the absolute worst place or the worst way they could have built this thing and they should have done it totally different or not done it at all. It’s very contentious.

09:13 AW – And it seems like the fossil fuel industry was able to become embedded in our grid and our national consciousness in an age where there weren’t as many environmental protections. So these newer technologies may encounter barriers that didn’t exist in 1920, let’s say.

09:34 SR – That’s absolutely right. 1920 and even as recently as you know, the 50s, Sixties, Seventies, 80s, I mean there was when we built out all of these, you know, these coal plants all over the Western United States and all of these dams, you know, that that interrupted these free flowing rivers. And you know there not that there wasn’t, you know, opposition in some places at sometimes, but it was really more of a question. Of, you know, should not whether we should do this at all, but, oh, maybe let’s put it in this other spot, but stuff got built and it didn’t have. So I mean definitely renewable energy is dealing with a standard that fossil fuels and other environmentally destructive project. That’s in the past didn’t have to deal with and on the one hand you could look at that and say, you know, that’s unfair. Why do we have to deal with this if you’re in favor of renewable energy? Because climate change is an existential threat and kind of the overriding thing here. So why should we hold these projects to the standard that fossil fuels the cause of climate change never had to be held to, but on the other hand it’s like this is this is what the reality is and we have this understanding now. That it’s not a good thing for the rich and powerful to just steamroll whoever is in their path. It’s not a good thing to cause environmental damage where you can avoid it and just really practically speaking if you don’t deal with this stuff and think you know creatively and really engage with people and try to find middle ground. You’re going to get opposition and you’re going to get lawsuits and you’re going to get, you know, government agencies listening to the people that are in these communities saying, no, you can’t do this. And that’s going to slow down the transition so it’s, you know, it’s a little bit of a, you know, sort of go slow to go fast situation. There’s a need to speed up the construction of renewable energy really dramatically to get the emissions reductions in greenhouse gases that we need, but if you just try to do that too fast without thinking through this stuff you’re going to, you’re going to get stopped in a lot of places.

11:27 (Music Break)

12:24 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to energy reporter Sammy Roth from the Los Angeles Times. So, Sammy, you’re talking about Philip Anschutz is very large, bold wind project in Wyoming and that he’s largely building this on spec. I know that each state has its own utility foibles, if you will. It’s not just like selling tires to auto parts dealers all around. There’s a lot of protections, a lot of bureaucracy to wade through. How does somebody creating energy in Wyoming sell it to Arizona or California effectively, I mean obviously has very deep pockets, but do you see this being part of California’s grid in in the future for example?

13:20 SR – I mean that’s definitely the goal of the insurance corporation. I mean they’ve been negotiating with the city of Los Angeles, the LA Department of Water and power to try to sell them this electricity going back like at least a dozen years to the early days of when they first proposed this. I mean, as I wrote this in the story, but they, you know, they were Anschutz. Sitting down with, you know, one of the top officials of the city of Los Angeles and like, you know, the 2010 timeframe, trying to convince him back then, you know, sign a deal upfront and buy this wind power from us back, back at a time when wind power was much more expensive. LA didn’t go forward. But yeah, that is, that is still their ideal customer to sell to Los Angeles and frankly they might have other customers too. I mean they want to build 600 wind turbines up there, you know, really powerful modern, you know, high capacity turbines. You know it’s possible LA will end up buying some of it and potentially other utilities in California and like you alluded to. Potentially utilities and other southwestern states as well. They’re, they’re going to be plugging into the power grid in California at this substation in Nevada just outside state lines and from that spot they could, you know, they could wheel electricity into California or into Nevada or into Arizona or potentially other parts of the West. So it’s not clear where exactly it’s all going to go, but my suspicion would be probably most of it ends up going to California.

14:39 AW – What about Denver, a place where Anschutz has very deep roots? I think he owns the Nuggets and maybe the Avalanche. He’s very much a part of that metropolitan area.

14:52 SR – He is. I forget about the sports teams. You’d have to you have to check that one. But yeah, he’s he’s a Denver guy and has been for a long time.  I don’t know, I guess it’s possible Colorado has ambitious renewable energy targets. I don’t know if that’s something that’s on their mind or whether the physics would work out given the, you know, given the direction. Of the line.

15:10 AW – So for our listeners who can’t see this project on latimes and people can go to latimes.com/repowering the West, it’s really well put together and it’s a work in progress – it looks like there’s some very interesting content that’s on its way. Why don’t you walk us through what’s on tap, Sammy?

15:35 SR – Oh, sure. So, I mean, it’s a, you know, it’s kind of fun. We’ve decided to tell people where we’re going before I’ve actually done it. So now I now I actually have to, you know, make make it happen and fulfill the promise here. But next story is going to be about the Imperial Valley, which is this farming region in the southeastern corner of California and to the extent that anyone familiar with the Imperial Valley, it’s who’s not from there, it’s most likely because they’re the largest user of Colorado River water in the western United States. So we’ve got this crisis on the Colorado and kind of the elephant in the room is Imperial Irrigation district. They use, you know, like 2.6 million acre feet, which is like something like 20% of the water that’s allocated on the river close to it. And so I’m going to be going down there and writing about the opportunity for solar power on farmland and how that could potentially help with the water issues. But why? There’s opposition among some land owners there to solar. So it’s, you know, some clean energy and some water solution, you know, opportunities, but also some complicated politics. That’ll be story two-story 3 going to be going up. Idaho to explore why it is that one of the reddest states in the country. Why its big power company was way out in front in setting a 100% clean energy target. And sort of how that came about and how Idaho Powers is going about trying to do that in a, you know, in a deep red state. Going to be going out eventually to the Navajo Nation to write about environmental justice and sort of transition from coal to solar on the Navajo Nation and how Los Angeles could play a role in that. We’re going to do a road trip along the Columbia River Corridor and Oregon and Washington, where they’ve got all sorts of energy infrastructure, you know, fossil and renewable. Interacting with the river and what the future looks like there and also Southern Nevada where we’re going to look at solar sprawl. Lots and lots of solar projects being proposed in the desert outside of Las Vegas and going to look at, you know, what are the environmental ups and downs of that and whether Vegas and other big cities should be more focused on rooftop solar and solar within the built urban environment. I think I got all the pieces there. Am I forgetting any of my own series?

17:42 AW – Well, there’s one I don’t know if you were talking about this in a with a different title, but you have one entitled “Red State goes Green.”

17:51 SR That’s the Idaho one.

17:52 AW  That’s the Idaho one. Expand on that a little bit because I just got back from Idaho for the first time and found it filled with fascinating dichotomies.

18:02 SR – Well, I still gotta go report that one, so I don’t have a lot to say yet, but I I’m seeing interesting stories all the time coming out of Idaho about. You know, lots of wind and solar being proposed, you know, local opposition to those excitement among the power company there for, for putting the pieces together of renewables. We’ll see.

18:20 AW – So it sounds like you’re definitely making up for lost time in terms of travel after being cooped up for a little bit.

18:27 SR – Yeah, this, this was actually a project, this re powering the West that I first pitched in like January 2020 and that I was going to do in, you know, 2020-2021. And then yeah, pandemic happened. So here we are.

18:38 AW – Well, since you’re not a baseball scout yet, this is a way for you to kind of live that scouts life and just be on the road and see if it’s for you when the Dodgers finally do give you a call.

18:49 SR – Yes, thank you. I am looking forward to that.

18:52 AW – So the Imperial Valley, how is that a piece of these Colorado River is drying up stories that we see across our Twitter feeds and and and our news feeds on a daily basis. It’s kind of a lost angle of that which you’ve been able to really spotlight quite effectively.

19:13 SR – Yeah, I definitely think that everyone who is following the Colorado River, who cares about its fate, which frankly 40 million people across the western United States, you know, should should know about the Imperial Valley. You know, they, like I said, they are the largest water user on the entire river. So when the river was divided up, you know, in the Colorado River Compact 100 years ago this year, you know, there was this, this 15 million acre feet that they said, you know, 15 or 16 1/2 depending on how you look at it. But they, you know, all seven of these states along the river got a share of that. And California got the biggest share of 4,000,000 acres. I guess that was quantified later.  It’s a long and complicated history.

19:52 AW – And a deeply flawed formula too, as you’ve reported upon.

19:56 SR – Yeah, well, I mean, they thought there was much more water in the river than there actually was, frankly. They knew, they knew that they were over, you know, over estimating and they kind of looked the other way ’cause. It was easier politically, but you know of California 4,000,000 acre feet. The Imperial Irrigation District has a right to like 3,000,000 of that and they typically use still 2.6 million. Even with a lot of the water transfers that they’ve agreed to so we’re talking about a river that never had 15, you know, million acre feet in it to begin with. And that now because of climate change and the long term drying trend in the West is going to have significantly less than that and you’ve got this, you know, this slice of desert.

20:34 AW – It’s a very low populated region too, right?

20:37 SR – Well, yeah, not that there’s anything wrong with that but about 180,000 people live in Imperial County, but almost all of the water used is for is for irrigated agriculture. They’ve got like 450,000 acres of of irrigated farmland in the middle of the desert, totally dependent on the Colorado River, like I said, they use like 2.6 million acre feeds. And if there’s any hope of, you know, solving the problems on this river and avoiding serious, you know, crises and shortfalls across the West. I mean, everyone acknowledges there is not a way to do that without the Imperial irrigation district using less water. That looks like what they’re willing to agree to, what it means for their farming economy, I mean, it’ll have huge impacts on them to use less water ’cause they’re, you know, their whole economy, or most of it is, is agriculture based. That is what makes that place run and the land owners down there. There are about 500 farming land owners in this view. Really and you know, they’ve many of them have been there for three, four or five, six generations and their families and they feel that this water is, there’s some, some of them are willing to, you know, sell it and make a profit. But I think more of them are, you know, determined that they’re going to keep what they’ve come to know and love. And it’s it’s also hard to blame them for that. So it’s a critical part of these Colorado River discussions and that’s why I think the energy angle is so interesting too. There’s already a decent chunk of the valley that’s been built out with solar, that’s land that is no longer using those large amounts of water, and that’s water that can, you know, potentially stay in in Lake Mead and help buffer against serious water shortage and crisis. And if more of it gets built out into solar, you could you could see more of that. But then you know, what does that mean for the places economy and what does it mean? For the Salton Sea, which is dying off, the less water goes down there and there are land owners and politicians who are willing to do that, or do they think that’s the wrong strategy for them? These are these are tough questions, and that’s what I’m going to be writing about.

22:44 (Music Break)

23:45 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to energy reporter Sammy Roth from the Los Angeles Times. So Sammy, I know you haven’t written this piece, but how amenable in general are these 500 farmers to transitioning to less water-intensive crops?

24:03 SR – Some, some amenable and some not. There’s still plenty about, you know, there’s still lots of alfalfa and, you know, grasses and cattle feed being grown down there. That’s pretty water intensive that you could make an argument should be grown somewhere with more water. But you know, for a lot of these guys that’s what they know, that’s what their soil is, is suited for and that’s how they’ve you know made their lives.

24:25 AW – And is that different from the signs that you see driving across Central California when you’re going from the Bay Area to Los Angeles on Route 5, you see a lot of blaming Nancy Pelosi for this mess or thanks a lot, Democrats have caused this? Where does that come from is that that’s different than the than the Imperial Valley’s complaints or not?

24:51 SR – I think it’s a little different because, you know, most of those signs up and down I5 are really about wanting more dams to be built. So, you know, there are a lot of, there are a lot of, you know, farmers in the Central Valley and the, you know, the San Joaquin and Sacramento who believed that. If only the federal government would, you know, and environmentalists would allow us to build more storage, more dams than we could store up more water in wet times and have it here in in dry times. And, you know, we wouldn’t have these shortages. They think it’s artificial.

25:19 AW – And that’s different in the Imperial Valley.

25:22 SR – Yeah, well, in the Imperial Valley, the problem is not that they don’t have enough water. They’ve got lots and lots of water. The problem is that they feel like people are coming and trying to take it away from them, I would say. I think there’s a growing understanding among the folks that I’m in communication with there that that something needs to change, that the river is in crisis. But you know what that looks like for them, to what extent they feel that. You know, that’s mostly on them versus mostly on, you know, cities that have been growing. Versus, how much should they get compensated for reductions? They’re widely varying opinions about that and willingness to engage.

25:57 AW – You would think that somebody who’s in touch with the land and seas, cataclysmic wildfires and water shortages and intense droughts would maybe at some point wake up to the idea that that this is not all a hoax.

26:12 SR – Well, I don’t, I don’t think it’s not. That’s the issue. I mean, I I’m sure you’ve got some climate denial and imperial like you do everywhere, but I I don’t really get the sense that it’s people saying, this is a hoax. It’s not a problem we need to solve. I think there’s an understanding that there’s a problem that needs to be solved. It’s more an attitude, you know it’s an attitude of “this is our right.” We have a we have a legal right to this water. It is ours. We got here first. You know, they’re first, just about first in the priority line or maybe second along the Colorado. The river and their feeling is, you know, the people who got there after them and cities that they don’t think should have grown so large, you know, they see it as somebody else’s problem to solve. Not all of them. Not all of them. I mean there’s definitely factions and folks who I think for understandable reasons feel like this should mostly be on somebody else, so it’s I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I mean, I’m gonna be down there soon and reporting this out, and I’d, I’d love to come back on the program and tell you what I learned.

27:15 AW – No, I’d love to have you back on. I was thinking more of when Trump came out to California right after he was elected and just was, I don’t want to misquote him, but he was basically dismissing. The realities of climate change and then giving low hanging fruit to farmers there and saying, you know, just open up the water, we have plenty of water. That’s not the problem. So once again, Sammy, how can people find the project that you’re working on?

27:42 SR – Yeah, just go to LaTimes.com/RepoweringTheWest. We’ve got the first story posted and where to come and you can sign up to get alerted when the next one comes out.

27:52 AW – Well, it’s terrific work. He’s an energy reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Sammy Roth, Sammy, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:00 SR – It’s a pleasure, Alex. Thanks for having me.

28:16 Narrator – You’ve been listening to see change radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The New Mastersounds, Frank Zappa and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tuning to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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