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New West Daily Roundup for June 14, 2016

Today in New West news: an update on CAISO’s energy proposal, Dry Hills Distillery opens in Four Corners, Montana; and fiber optics in Wyoming.

Energy development in the West is a hot ticket item right now, especially given that every New West state has a history of coal and oil mining. Indeed, for some states, their mining history is a badge of honor, one they continue to wear amid declining prices, sweeping layoffs in bankrupt companies, and growing interest in renewables like solar and wind.

Indeed, we previously reported on an initiative originating from California, which would create a renewable grid system for the 11 Western states, under the management of the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, a nonprofit organization whose members are appointed by California legislators. Proponents of the plan say the plan would cut down on costs for ratepayers and curb pollution across the region. Critics of the plan, especially Utahan legislators, say the plan would concentrate too much power in CAISO, and could lead to California dictating energy policy. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Governor Gary Herbert’s Office has become especially critical of the proposal, which it says would undermine state autonomy:

“We’re not satisfied with any of the particulars, which continue to demonstrate an unacceptable retention of control by California entities, and a discounting of the requests and needs of Utah and others states,” Laura Nelson, Herbert’s energy adviser, said in a news release.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Utah, is reviewing the governance proposal, but it is, at first glance, “pleased that the proposal clearly recognizes the need to protect and preserve the authority and interests of all states that would be participants in a regional market,” according to a statement from the utility, which is poised to be the first to enter into the regional agreement.

California’s new governance proposal also calls for the creation of an independent, nonprofit body of state regulators that would “provide policy direction and input on matters of collective state interest” related to the regional grid. The body would comprise regulatory representatives from the states in the regional grid’s footprint, with a nonvoting adviser appointed by the publicly owned utilities in those states, and would be funded by CAISO by means of a tariff that would require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Although the proposal says the body of state regulators would have “primary authority over regional … policy initiatives on topics within the general subject areas of transmission cost allocation and aspects of resource adequacy,” it’s not clear how or even whether the body would interact with the CAISO board. It’s also not clear what would happen to the five sitting CAISO board members when their current terms expire. Those details would be left to a transitional committee, which would be appointed by the CAISO board. This transitional committee would be tasked with hammering out the details not included in California’s governance proposal.

Though the proposal implies that the distribution of power would be worked out down the road, the initial setup worries Kelly Francone, executive director of the Utah Association of Energy Users.

Starting with a majority of board members representing California could lead to an imbalance of power down the road, she said.

But Jennifer Gardner, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said her group suggested the proposal’s “transition” approach to the California Energy Commission, and that the group has seen the proposal succeed in the past.

Stakeholder meetings have been planned in Sacramento, California (Thursday, June 16) and in Denver, Colorado (Monday, June 20).

Over in Montana, we previously reported on Four Corners-based Dry Hills Distillery, which was founded a few years back by the owners of Dry Hills, a family farm operated farm since 1905. Owner Jeff Droge, along with his wife, started the distillery after a decade of thought and toil, collaborating with Butte-based Headframe Spirits to test batches of their products. The company hopes to start selling potato vodka, followed by a potato gin, wheat whiskey, and a bourbon further down the line. We also reported that the distillery hoped to have a tasting room opened by February.

Now, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, after some delay, Dry Hills Distillery is finally open for business:

From the time he was young, Jeff Droge, 30, helped work the farm; planting seeds, spraying Hollowtop water and harvesting truckload after truckload of spuds. But when the time came to decide whether to buy into the operation, Droge decided to “go out on a limb” and try something different.

“Every farmer I know has looked at his harvest and said, ‘I want to make some hooch out of this,’” Droge said. “That’s where the idea came from.”

Droge’s idea was to take the potatoes he had spent his life cultivating and turn them into liquor.

In 2014, he and his wife, Erica Droge, headed south to Kentucky, where they attended a crash course in the art of distilling at Moonshine University.

“The biggest thing we got out of it was the passion,” said Erica, 30. “We fell in love with the industry.”


After more than two years of planning and construction, the distillery and tasting room opened March 23.

Dry Hills also received a $48,000 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture to purchase production equipment, which processes 6,000 pounds of potatoes per batch of liquor — about 12 pounds per bottle.

In addition to its Hollowtop Vodka, the distillery produces a potato-based gin and has plans to add infused vodkas, as well as whiskey, to its arsenal of libations. All the drinks will be made using Droge produce, making Dry Hills a rare farm-to-bottle operation, Erica said.

“We take great pride in that,” she said.

Finally, over in Wyoming, according to Wyoming Business Report, in an admittedly “unusual move,” Mountain View-based Union Wireless is developing a fiber optic carrier hub roughly 45 miles north of Rawlins, on a site owned by the Wyoming Department of Transportation. According to Carbon County Planner Sid Fox, the move will help connect Rawlins with Lander and Casper. From the Report:

The construction project is a continuation of work that began in 2013 with Union Wireless laying down 50-miles of fiber optic cable that connected Hanna to Elk Mountain and to Saratoga.

The following summer, work crews with Union Wireless feverishly worked to beat the onset of winter to lay approximately 150 miles of fiber optic cable. The cable improves Union’s high-speed broadband capabilities in Carbon, Sweetwater and Fremont Counties.

Company officials say the project fits in with the company’s long-range goal to expand services along the Interstate 80 corridor to its rural customers in outlying communities.

“We’ve completed to Lander and actually to Hudson, which is the final stopping point there,” said Alyssa Blair, Union Wireless site development manager. “And to the north we’ve made it to Alcova and we’ll make it to Casper probably this year.”

The fiber optic project represents a huge technical leap forward in services offered. Many of the towns served were fed by microwave transmission, which has limited data transfer capacity.

Union Wireless realized that in order to meet higher data transfer speeds, they would have to expand into northern Carbon County and east of Baggs to Encampment and Ryan Park.

“Fiber optic cable runs in one continuous run and in order to break that out to meet different needs in different areas there needs to be some sort of facility such as a carrier hub,” Blair said.

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