Commissioners discuss Ready Wyoming plans to build transmission line through Platte County

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PLATTE COUNTY — After nearly two years of silence, a team representing Black Hills Energy addressed the Platte County Commissioners last week. The commission had reached out to Black Hills Energy 18 months prior with no response, and reached out yet again at the end of 2023 requesting an audience with the organization that has plans to build transmission lines that would march 70 miles across Platte County.

The request came with concerns about the impact on landowners and other countywide issues that had heretofore been allegedly ignored by the energy organization. While the commissioners requested information, Black Hills Energy had already been engaged in area landowner negotiations and planning for the Ready Wyoming project. However, a team presented their model and scope for surveying, permits, encroachment agreements, and land restoration plans surrounding the project. Vice President Wes Ashton was joined by Director of Land Randy Harris and their colleagues Kristi Chamley and Stacy MacDonald, all from Rapid City, South Dakota.

“We are very happy to be here speaking to you about the Ready Wyoming project, a 260-mile project to further interconnect and expand the Wyoming electric system to make a regional transmission grid,” Ashton said. “We plan to rebuild, enhance, and build new substations with the premise that we can expand cost savings over the decades ahead.”

Ready Wyoming will serve the current and growing needs of energy for customers currently served by Black Hills Energy’s Cheyenne Light, Fuel, and Power utility. The objective is partly to help maintain the reliability of the current system while enhancing the overall resiliency of the electric system and expanding access to power markets and renewable resources. According to Ashton, once the necessity and benefits have been demonstrated and approved, the company would work with landowners to get the transmission route established.

“We are still in the landowner negotiation phase, and will use a wooden H-frame structure, which is a typical structure that limits land use and is in line with many you see around this area,” Ashton explained. Benefits would include certain tax benefits and several construction jobs throughout the life of the project in the county and outlying region.  

The project is to include one new substation along with two replacement substations and four expanded substations. Three new 230 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines and two new 115 kV lines will also be built, and the project has an estimated cost of approximately $260 million. Once Ready Wyoming gets approval, construction is slated to proceed in multiple phases that would span 2024 through 2025. 

Environmental professional Kristi Chamley added they have a history of excellent environmental work with good stewardship; caring for wildlife, water, and land. “We do collaborate with landowners to ensure they have seed mix and reclamation work done that they want and need. We often help with other projects the landowner may have going on,” Chamley said. “We have done a few hundred miles of surveys of local flora and fauna and local native species. We plan to acquire special use permits in Platte County, but that is in process.”

Randy Harris, Director of Land, has been with Black Hills energy for more than 34 years managing land on various projects, managing landowner engagement, and finding solutions in partnership with electrical contractors, land surveying and procurement of materials. Harris stated that not all permits have been acquired in Platte County, but they are hoping to begin construction in the spring of 2024.

“We work hand-in-hand with the landowners for encroachment agreements and crossings, and make sure we cover all our bases for county and local governments. Additionally, there will be a land agent on site as we want the land agent to be the point of contact for the landowners when concerns and questions arise. Our owner engagement is robust,” Harris explained.

With the use of fact sheets, project overview and detailed aerial maps, landowners can see their own property as well as other routes that cross the property. According to Harris, the aerial mapping is helpful in “enhancing the conversation so that everyone understands.” Landowner input is critical in deciding where routes can traverse so that there is the least amount of surface disturbance. “If there are cattle present, they may not want activity in that area, so we rely on that substantial input as we anticipate a construction schedule,” Harris added.

The anticipated route is to travel through Platte County for approximately 70 miles, and Harris stated they have had good response from landowners. “We have come to some verbal agreements with around a dozen ranches and farms, and verbal agreements with a number of others that are close to finishing paperwork; not only here, but in other areas of the project.”

The Ready Wyoming project is a linear project, meaning it will start in one place and progress forward in increments of 10 miles at a time, end-to-end. Construction crews are predicted to vary in size, depending on what part of the project they work on, such as drilling for pole placement, laying the lines, and other work during the life of the project.

“Some construction crews do this type of work year-round, so they often have their own RVs, others may stay in hotels, so we want to give a sense of the type of activity that would impact the county or be a concern,” Harris said.

He also explained that the life of the H structure was 40-50 years, and some older structures that were put up in the 1970s are just now being repaired or replaced, using the 140 miles of line that passes through Rapid City, South Dakota to Gillette, Wyoming as an example. “Every five years we are on a cycle for pole inspections,” Harris added. “This helps us forecast a lifespan.”

Commissioner chairman Steve Shockley inquired about taxes on materials used in the project, explaining, “We are interested how that is worked out to get local government entities tax revenue.” 

“Our number one materials yard is near Glendo, I believe,” Harris answered. “We try to site our material laydown yards strategically so that materials are close to where they are needed; and certainly, Platte is one of our main counties. We will have another laydown yard closer to Cheyenne, and a couple that are on the route that goes into Nebraska.”

Although Shockley’s question was not clearly answered, Ashton added the intention is to come back to Platte County and give a better range once agreements are secure with the landowners.  

Commissioner Ian Jolovich asked if there were proposed land use agreements, becauwe it would be expensive to keep roads open during construction. Ashton replied they needed to see if there is an agreement with the county drawn up. “If not,” he said, “We can provide one. When we are in construction phase, our teams can be helpful in keeping roads passable if that becomes an issue, but we are conscientious about maintaining roads we use during construction and one key mantra is that when we are completed, we want to reclaim the area as close as possible to the state it was in when we started.”

Jolovich replied that the commission considered themselves lucky to get the team to come to Wheatland. “If we hadn’t reached out to you, you may not have contacted us with these permits. From a county point of view, what input do we have on how the county roads are used, what is the timing of the project, and will we have meaningful time to work with you?” he asked.

“Our intention is to be available with questions, concerns, or any information that is needed,” Ashton said. “We want to work together. Conversation with landowners has taken a long time and have gone a slightly different direction, and we are working to get that in order before coming in. It was not our intention to make you wait until the 11th hour,” he continued. “We want to work together to find out what you need and want to be good partners. We consider this area home, too, and we have been in business over 100 years. The delay has not been intentional at all.”

Ashton concluded by saying their focus right now is who is the most impacted and they intend to move forward working with the County Commissioners.

Jolovich stated later, they had had some negative feedback from some landowners related to initial communications from Black Hills Energy regarding the project, and getting the group to come to a commissioner meeting and present their case was not only difficult (18 months without a response) but important.

According to the Ready Wyoming mission statement, the economic impact is expected to be positive in the greater Cheyenne area and extending throughout the state. A study conducted and completed by the University of Wyoming Center for Economic and Business Analysis found that Ready Wyoming would support nearly 1,400 jobs during construction resulting in over $100 million in total value. Additionally, the Ready Wyoming transmission expansion project supports economic development by aligning with Wyoming’s efforts to attract and retain high load customers such as blockchain and data centers. __________________________

On Feb. 15, 2022, Black Hills Energy submitted an application to the Wyoming Public Service Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN). If approved, the CPCN would authorize Black Hills Energy to construct the Ready Wyoming expansion project.

The next commissioner meeting will be February 6 at 9:00 a.m. in the courthouse lower level.