The current surge in domestic renewable energy development across the ENR Mountains States region is powering demand for SWCA Environmental Consultants from a wide range of clients.
Already a leader in the environmental services industry, and with its own long history of sustainability practices, Phoenix-based SWCA’s long-standing philosophy of providing creative, science-based solutions to address both project-specific and global environmental challenges aligns with a growing desire among public- and private-sector energy clients to go beyond simply checking the boxes of regulatory compliance and consider a much larger sphere of social and economic impacts, an approach called environmental, social and governance (ESG).
“Clients are really asking environmental firms to step up” when it comes to ESG, says Sarah Sappington, vice president for SWCA’s Rocky Mountain Plains region. She adds that while SWCA is already one of the nation’s largest firms focused on cultural and natural resources, “our ability to offer nature-positive, diversity and sustainable business solutions shows our commitment to helping clients achieve those goals.”
SWCA’s fundamental philosophy of balance has proven well suited to tackling the intricate, sometimes controversial process of planning and integrating renewable energy infrastructure into highly sensitive ecosystems. In 2022, for example, multi-faceted roles in renewable energy projects were instrumental in SWCA’s four offices in Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas earning $18 million in 2022 regional revenue, a 20% increase from the previous year.
The firm’s employees contribute time and expertise to community service projects. Volunteers from the Denver and Fort Collins, Colo., offices planted ponderosa pine seedlings to help revegetate the 2020 CalWood fire burn scar in Heil Ranch near Boulder.
Images courtesy SWCA
A key element in 2022’s performance stemmed from SWCA’s continued involvement in complex, multiyear efforts such as the Power Co. of Wyoming LLC’s $5-billion Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project, currently under construction, and the $3-billion, 732-mile TransWest Express Transmission Line that will eventually stretch from south-central Wyoming to southern Nevada. TransWest recently received a notice to proceed from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
In addition, the firm’s Bismarck, N.D., office recently completed a three-year project for NextEra Energy’s new 600-MW Crowned Ridge Wind Energy Facility in South Dakota. For that project, SWCA’s project team tapped the firm’s nationwide pool of specialists focused on a range of topics, including species, culture, regulatory compliance and technical issues.
Sappington says access to these resources has been critical as more states and businesses seek to reduce their carbon footprints, spurring more interest in renewable energy projects.
“We don’t foresee it slowing down anytime soon,” she says.
SWCA is helping the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project achieve a surface disturbance goal of less than 1,500 acres on the 320,000-acre ranch.
Images courtesy SWCA
Coordination and Coexistence
The Chokecherry and TransWest projects evidence how SWCA culture has helped facilitate more than a decade of progress for two of the nation’s largest and most complex renewable energy infrastructure efforts, particularly given the wind farm’s location within a 320,000-acre “checkerboard” of alternating sections of private and federal land.
Roxane Perruso, the Power Co. of Wyoming’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, recalls that when the project began in 2009, “we were a small client, not a utility, and didn’t know how big a project it would grow into. SWCA gave our work the same high level of attention as they do now in a continually expanding role that has made them an important part of our team.”
“Our ability to offer nature-positive diversity and sustainable business solutions shows our commitment to helping clients achieve those goals.”
—Sarah Sappington, Vice President, SWCA Rocky Mountain Plains Region
One of SWCA’s key contributions, adds Kelly Cummins, TransWest Express vice president of land and environmental affairs, has been conducting comprehensive environmental assessments and compliance strategies with an eye toward limiting infrastructure impacts to a bare minimum of acreage.
“With a significant federal nexus, you’re doing comprehensive environmental reviews of every resource out there,” Cummins explains. “We’ve tried to take a science-based approach in developing the projects, which meshes really well with the kind of company SWCA is.”
Along with helping maintain a web of efficient interactions with both federal and state agencies, SWCA has used GPS telemetry and field observations to assess the potential effects of the developments on the greater sage grouse, a species in decline across the region due to habitat loss. Cummins says the study, begun in 2010 and scheduled to extend into the 2030s, has monitored how the sage grouse relates to its landscape, providing guidance that will help safeguard the habitat against construction-related disruptions and gauge the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.
SWCA is performing similar assessments of eagles across the wind farm site, including year-round monitoring of nests and flight paths.
“It’s a huge amount of data that’s helped us coordinate a turbine layout that will avoid or minimize impacts on the eagles and other species,” Cummins adds.
SWCA’s understanding that renewable energy projects also have community impacts has been critical to the firm’s work with the Standing Rock Renewable Energy Power Authority (SAGE), created by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to launch a crowdfunded 235-MW, 60-turbine wind farm named Anpetu Wi, which means morning light. The project will provide independence and sustainability for the community.
In addition to assisting with the project’s predevelopment environmental and cultural reviews, SWCA is supporting SAGE’s efforts to work with potential developer partners that will not only carry the project through to completion, but also foster a diverse, multigenerational workforce once Anpetu Wi is in operation.
SAGE general manager Joseph McNeil credits SWCA for bringing a team that understands and embraces the tribe’s values of environmental protection and respect for other species.
“That’s critical to us,” he says, adding that the firm’s reputational and professional expertise enhances the quality and reliability of reports shared with prospective developers and investors.
“They see that SWCA is involved, and they know that information is accurate and can be trusted,” McNeil says.
SWCA can tap a national network of habitat and species experts to provide science-based solutions to minimize infrastructure impacts to the varied and often unique ecosystems of the Mountain States.
Images courtesy SWCA
SWCA Gives Back
Sappington stresses that numbers and project milestones tell only part of the story of SWCA’s regional success. The 100% employee-owned firm has cultivated a culture emphasizing flexibility, adaptability and equitable support for employees.
“It’s a multifaceted effort that fosters a feeling that all employees belong and are respected,” she says.
For example, SWCA’s staff, more than half of whom are women, can participate in more than a dozen employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on issues specific to women, ethnicities and other interests and backgrounds. They offer forums for both learning and sharing of insights and perspectives. And rather than mandating a post-pandemic return to the office, SWCA has instead invested in technology and other resources to support employees who wish to continue working remotely.
In addition, SWCA encourages its employees to help forge sustainability communities through its SWCA Gives Back program. In 2022, SWCA staff in Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas devoted nearly 280 volunteer hours to a variety of causes, including planting approximately 500 ponderosa pine seedlings at Heil Valley Ranch in Boulder County, Colo., to spur the land’s recovery from a major October 2020 fire.
Amid the growing demand for renewable energy in the Mountain States, SWCA has helped clients demonstrate environmental stewardship and regulatory compliance while also bringing economic benefits to the region.
Sappington says these and other facets of SWCA’s unique culture will serve the firm well as it tackles the industry-wide challenge of recruiting and retaining top talent.
“We’re creating a workplace environment very different from a lot of firms, but one that empowers all of us to make smart decisions about out work,” Sappington says. “Success for the company is success for us, and we feel we’ve found a model that works for us.”
SWCA’s leadership is also eyeing new opportunities to diversify and enhance its current services, especially as the varied and unpredictable effects of climate change have a deeper effect on the region. Sappington says the firm is well positioned to help clients prepare for, manage and recover from weather extremes, wildfires and other events that are occurring more frequently.
“Resiliency is built into our DNA,” Sappington says, noting how SWCA’s experience amid the political and economic uncertainties enabled the firm to not only weather the pandemic, but thrive as well. And should the coming months bring a recession, as some have forecast, SWCA will be ready.
“We will look to be resilient and diversify,” she says, “and swing wherever we need to.”