It has never been easy, trying to catch the wind. But the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project in southeastern New Mexico might be inching closer to doing that. Although it appeared this summer that military objections would stop the proposal, now a study from MIT could signal compromise and progress for the endeavor.
The $1.2 billion SunZia project is a proposed 515-mile, 3,000-megawatt electricity transmission system exporting primarily wind resources to Arizona with the potential to reach population centers further west. It is just one effort, though a big one, to harness and deliver clean, sustainable domestically-produced energy.
Since the distribution system would cross public and private land, the Bureau of Land Management is the lead agency in a federal evaluation of its environmental impacts.
Seven years into the planning process, however, the project hit a roadblock.
A month before the BLM issued its much-delayed final record of decision to comply with federal environmental rules, the Department of Defense protested the roughly 45-mile section of the system that would traverse the northern extension of White Sands Missile Range, arguing that the lines would impair national defense operations in the area.
The land in question is a frequently used "call-up area" for military testing. It's under the jurisdiction of private landowners, the BLM and the State Land Office, however, the DOD controls the airspace.
Gov. Susana Martinez and US Rep. Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs) have joined the DOD in its objections, citing potential harm to both the economic contribution and security mission of the military in southern New Mexico.
SunZia and the BLM had already addressed to some of the concerns that environmental organizations and citizens raised in the environmental review, but the DOD objection suggested the project was headed for a complete impasse. The developers indicated that re-routing the lines or burying them as the DOD suggested would be technologically and economically unfeasible, and they would back away from their investment.
In late November, finally responding to the steadfast advocacy of New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, the Department of Defense agreed to an independent study to evaluate their objections to the high voltage lines crossing the Northern Extension of WSMR.
White Sands Missile Range Commander Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham says he plans to "fully cooperate" with MIT's Lincoln Laboratories, the institution undertaking the study.
"It is a great step forward," says SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins. "We are extremely supportive of MIT's fact-based analysis and are willing to take reasonable measures to work towards a resolution." The SunZia Transmission Project is what's known as "a merchant line" and would be owned by the SouthWestern Power Group, Shell Wind Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Tucson Electric Power. Originally envisioned as a way to provide additional interconnection opportunities for a natural gas plant in Bowie, Ariz. in 2005, the competitive pricing of wind-generated power and enormous potential in New Mexico shifted the Project's goals to renewable energy transmission In an opinion piece published by the Las Cruces Sun-News this fall, Heinrich advocated for "a timely and well-sited decision by the BLM" to "send the message that we are willing to stand up for a brighter energy and jobs future that will benefit both our state and our nation."
A study by the New Mexico Energy Conservation and Management Division found that our state is ranked 12 th nationally in potential for wind energy generation. Those 12 states together have 90 percent of the total wind potential in the US.
"It is also important to find common ground that does not preclude one national priority over the other when both priorities can be realized, especially when it means so many jobs for New Mexicans," Heinrich tells SFR. "... But this isn't just about SunZia. This is about diversifying New Mexico's economy, lessening our dependence on federal dollars, and charting a course for a more prosperous future."
According to the Economic Impact Assessment prepared jointly by the University of Arizona and New Mexico State University, the transmission project would create about 600 permanent maintenance jobs and 24,000 jobs for construction of the lines, substations and places where energy is generated from wind, the sun, and geothermal sources. It's also expected to generate millions in state and local taxes during the construction phase.
Due to the low population density of New Mexico, none of the end users, so far, will be in our state.
Even if the DOD and SunZia find an equitable resolution, the project still faces a certification process from both the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and Arizona utility commissions.
Significant environmental concerns about the ecological footprint of these formidable transmission lines have been integral to the siting decisions and are still controversial.
For example, the 135-foot transmission towers will straddle the Rio Grande just south of Sevilleta National Wildlife refuge, an important migratory bird corridor. The right of way for the 500kv circuit can be up to 1,000 feet wide, though more typically it is 200 feet, a swath chopped through wild lands and the beauty of desert landscapes. SunZia plans to follow existing infrastructure where possible and use aerial construction techniques to minimize ground disturbance, but some new access roads will be required.
In Arizona, the SunZia route would transect the San Pedro Valley, fragmenting vulnerable wildlife habitat and impacting sensitive ecosystems. For this reason the Arizona route is opposed by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups.
Adding renewable energy to the power grid is a complex issue.
In theory, the SunZia Transmission Project will help reduce global warming emissions. The life-cycle of a wind turbine contributes far less CO2 to the atmosphere than natural gas or coal generated electricity. However, the company's own description states that the project "provides an option to develop power generation resources, including renewables..." The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules prohibit a transmission merchant from discriminating against power generation sources, and access to the interstate lines cannot prohibit fossil fuel energy plants.
How soon are things likely to be resolved with the DOD? SunZia's Calkins says, "We are optimistic that the conclusion of the long federal permitting process is near. That will be the key to unlocking any remaining issues, and we hope to wrap up with the states' permitting by the end of next year." On that timeline, commercial electricity delivery will begin in 2017.
Zoe Krasney is a freelance writer based in Albuquerue. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org