The Cheyenne Ridge Project and the Story of My Career

I got started in energy law working for Environment Colorado in 2004, where I led the organization into the PUC breach to contest a new coal-fired power plant that was proposed in 2004.  After that banner year for me - which also included passage of Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard, I started working at a water law firm.  About two years later I got a call from Matt Jacobs, someone I didn’t know.  He had heard my name from Ron Lehr, one of the leaders in the Colorado electric space whom I had collaborated with while working at Environment Colorado.   Matt had a start-up wind development company called EnCompass.  Having virtually no experience in business and only some exposure to utilities law, I jumped at the chance to work on a wind lease.  So I gathered every able body I could at my firm with any remote connection to energy or land issues into my first meeting with Matt, found a CLE on the subject, and fumbled my way through the meeting. It worked!   I was hired to work on a wind project.

    We had gotten a draft wind lease put together after a few months, when Matt was whisked away by Tradewind Energy.  As my luck would have it, Matt brought me along with him to work on a Colorado project.  Matt was sure he had identified the windiest site in Colorado for Tradewind.  The land was located about 20 miles south of Burlington, Colorado, right on the Kansas border where the wind regime was more like Kansas than Colorado.  It had expansive terrain, incredible and consistent wind speeds, and the Eastern Plains Transmission Project, a high voltage transmission line designed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to bring coal power from its proposed plant in Holcomb, Kansas to Colorado, was proposed to run right through the center of the project.   It was called the Cheyenne Ridge Project.

    But soon after, in 2008, the Holcomb plant was rejected by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who later would go on to head up the drafting and passage of the Affordable Care Act under President Obama.  The decision was a striking display of political courage in a state where every democrat in office is a short-timer from their inauguration.   Not long after the fall of Holcomb, Tri-State shelved the Eastern Plains Transmission Project (“EPTP”).  The Cheyenne Ridge Project was hung out to dry. 

    There was only one transmission line close to the project, and that was a medium voltage line owned by Tri-State, who at the time was decidedly not interested in buying wind power.  The only real buyer was Xcel Energy, who had started its first wind acquisitions for Colorado’s renewable energy standard in 2006.   And there was no transmission solution to reach Xcel’s load without the EPTP. 

    The Cheyenne Ridge Project tasked me with figuring out a transmission solution for its project.  At this job, I largely failed.   Each year, the utilities would discuss, even study, sometimes for years, proposed big transmission projects like the High Plains Express or the Lamar to Front Range.  But each time a decision got close, the football was pulled.  As a result, transmission was always right around the bend, but never in sight.

    My task ran into the brick wall constructed by the transmission-providing utilities in Colorado, who guard their transmission kingdom jealously.  Since the passage of PURPA, utilities have slowly lost ground in their control of access to the transmission system, and in the process surrendered parts of their monopoly control.  Transmission planning is one remaining bastion, however, allowing the utilities effective control over the development of their systems.  Without transmission access, independent power producers ("IPPs") have nothing.

    Over the next ten years I worked on this project with Matt and then other project managers.   Sometimes we were fighting both internally and externally to keep the project going.  Through this work, I became involved in the wind industry, and that led me further into utilities law.  After representing Tradewind as a member of a trade group for several years, I was lucky to find myself asked to represent that group.  I was hired by other IPPs based on the experience I gained with Tradewind, and eventually found myself with an adequate amount of experience to keep going.  And Matt and I became great friends, attending pitch after pitch with utilities.

     Things changed in 2016 when Xcel made the leap into the wind business.  It purchased the Rush Creek project.   The project was not exactly the neighbor of Cheyenne Ridge, but it was in the neighborhood.  Because there was no transmission to the area, Xcel made the move to build a giant extension cord, the Rush Creek line, some 96 miles east into the windiest area of Colorado, and twenty miles south of Burlington, to access its project.  It was as close to a knock at the front door Cheyenne Ridge had seen since the EPTP.   

    Xcel then filed its 2016 Electric Resource Plan.  It noted that bids would be accepted on the Rush Creek line, and the Rush Creek line was going to draw the most attention in the state, again because of the lack of transmission anywhere else.  Soon after that, the Colorado Energy Plan was announced, and suddenly the resource need was gigantic. 

    And Matt was right, the Cheyenne Ridge Project was the windiest site in Colorado.  With transmission now available, it was the site Xcel selected for itself.  And last week, in April 2019 and over ten years after Matt walked into the office of a rather green lawyer (pun intended), the PUC approved the Cheyenne Ridge Project.  If I am luckier still, I will be there to help break ground for the project that helped break so much ground for me.

Submitted By: Mark Detsky