Nine years ago, Philip Anschutz was considering an offer on his 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in Carbon County, Wyoming. An unidentified buyer was prepared to pay $50 million for the spread.
To a land-loving westerner like Anschutz, it was a beautiful piece of property, even though it appeared to have little economic value. It was a splendid cattle ranch, but not exactly an income generator. No vast aquifers underlie the ranch, no oil and gas deposits were ready to be tapped. It's simply a silent expanse of barren ridges and prairie, a place where eagles soar, antelope roam and sage grouse thrive.
Or maybe it's not so silent. As anyone who has ever visited southern Wyoming knows, the winds begin at sunrise and blow fiercely until sunset. Given America's thirst for renewable energy, would it make sense to develop a wind-energy farm on the ranch? After a chat with longtime associate Bill Miller, Anschutz declined the offer and began his research.
What they found was extraordinary. The daytime winds on the ranch are the strongest and most predictable of any developable American site. For wind, the Overland Trail Ranch is the Saudi Arabia of the United States, an inexhaustible reservoir of energy — and in this case, carbon-free.
Still, regional demand for wind is weak. Providers like Colorado Springs Utilities might buy a few dozen megawatts, but why bother? Anschutz focused instead on California and its insatiable demand for renewable energy.
A plan was created that would erect 1,000 3-megawatt wind turbines on the ranch for an aggregate capacity of 3,000 megawatts. That's enough electricity to power Los Angeles and San Francisco, equivalent to 15 Drake power plants. Best of all, the turbine array would emit no carbon dioxide, no nitrogen oxides, no sulfur dioxide and no particulates. It would be the largest wind plant in the world.
Getting that energy to market wouldn't be easy. To qualify for California renewable rates, Anschutz would have to game the system, sending the power over his own dedicated line to the California border.
Total project cost: at least $8 billion.
In the nine years since he began investigating the project, Anschutz has slowly addressed various regulatory obstacles and fleshed out the original plan. While the federal government may theoretically support replacing fossil-fuel generation with renewables, the reality on the ground is very different. Anschutz's team has prepared multiple environmental impact statements and environmental assessments; worked with state and local politicos along the power line's 700 miles; and created plans to protect eagles in the air and sage grouse on the ground. According to a project spokesperson, final regulatory approvals are expected in March 2016.
In his 2014 book Out Where the West Begins, Anschutz profiles tough, adventurous and determined men credited with building the West. He most admired those who persisted longest, overcame the greatest barriers and left the greatest legacies, men such as William Palmer and Spencer Penrose. Anschutz already claims more business successes than most of us can dream of, yet none have been truly transformative. It's fine to spruce up The Broadmoor, rescue the Gazette, own sports venues, sell concert tickets, run a railroad — but nowadays, a $10 billion fortune doesn't even guarantee you a footnote in history.
The success of this vast renewable-energy project, however, may be a game-changer. Future generations just might remember Anschutz, a deeply conservative businessman with a background in the oil industry, as a laudable capitalist pioneer who risked billions on a socially valuable enterprise — and, even more significantly, profited from it.
In his book, Anschutz describes a meeting railroad promoter Theodore B. Judah held in 1860 with the "Big Four." Judah asked four Sacramento merchants — Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins — to help fund his dream of a transcontinental railroad. They agreed. Nine years later, Stanford drove the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, joining the rails of the new transcontinental railroad. Modern America was born.
Stephen Ambrose titled his history of the building of the transcontinental railroad Nothing Like It in the World. Too bad it's taken. A future Anschutz biographer might try It's an Ill Wind That Blows No Good.