New snarl for proposed transmission line in the Southwest

In less than a week, SunZia had solved one problem just in time to encounter another.

 

Last Saturday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell joined state officials at Sandia National Laboratory, in Albuquerque, to make a triumphant announcement: After six years, SunZia, a proposed transmission line to take New Mexico-produced wind and solar energy to the Arizona and California electrical markets, had received federal approval.

By Thursday, the celebration was over. Late Wednesday night, New Mexico’s state land commissioner, incoming Republican Aubrey Dunn, had suspended SunZia’s right to enter state lands, bringing the state permitting process to a halt and postponing a project that has struggled for years. Once again, SunZia’s backers are having to prove what the proposed transmission is worth.

SunZia’s planned route, 515 miles in all, starts near Corona, New Mexico, traverses the southwestern portion of the state, and terminates at the Pinal Central Substation, south of Phoenix. In doing so, it passes the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, and crosses the San Pedro River Valley, in Arizona.

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The route that the U.S. Department of the Interior gave approval to on Saturday. Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.
The federal permitting process stalled out over a five-mile section of the line, when defense officials worried it could interfere with future weapon testing at White Sands. After nearly a year of negotiations, SunZia’s backer, Southwestern Power Group, agreed to bury the section, a compromise that led to Saturday’s announcement. 

In reality, SunZia’s path has likely been easier than most proposed transmission lines. It’s one of seven lines, mostly Western, that President Obama prioritized for federal approval in 2011. But even on the fast track, it’s a slow process. Just one other Western line, Wyoming’s Gateway West, has federal approval, but two of its segments remain in limbo due to environmental concerns. Another, intended for northern Oregon, was cancelled entirely.

Even before Wednesday’s stall-out, SunZia has had to address a list of concerns, both financial and environmental. 

Take, for example, the question of who will be buying and selling the energy that SunZia plans to transport. The terminus in New Mexico is primed for wind and solar energy development, but so far, there’s little production. 

Federal law prevents transmitters from banning non-renewable producers from using their line, so a company hoping to bill its transmissions as “renewable” has to depend on the market to keep its promise. But the market has its own challenges. Potential producers of renewable energy are unwilling to build without a way to get their power to buyers. But without those producers already in place, transmitters have trouble getting the public on board to build the line.

New Mexico officials talk with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratory.
SunZia is banking on demand from California, which has forged an aggressive path on renewable energy. Just last week, the governor announced a plan to up the amount of renewables in the state energy budget to 50 percent. But that demand doesn’t exist – yet.

Dunn’s announcement on Wednesday means SunZia officials face a more pressing concern: convincing the commissioner and those who use New Mexico land that SunZia will benefit them. In a statement, Dunn, who took office on Jan. 1, said the permitting pause was intended to give him time to learn more about the project. He also has asked for two public meetings intended to inform those who lease state lands for mining, farming and grazing about the potential impacts of SunZia’s construction. 

Even if Dunn ends up supporting the project, SunZia’s troubles may not be over.  There’s still no word yet on what troubles the permitting process in Arizona could bring. And the line faces ongoing opposition from Arizona-based environmental activists who have argued the line, which crosses sensitive habitat in the San Pedro Valley, as well as bird migratory corridors, will in fact become a vehicle for non-renewable energy.

“There are no specific renewable energy projects associated with the transmission line,” said Peter Else, chair of the Friends of the Aravaipa Region and one of SunZia’s vocal critics.

(Southwestern Power is preparing to build a natural gas-fueled power plant not far from the line’s proposed route, though SunZia’s backers have said the two projects are unrelated.)

As for the planned route, Else says the line could interfere with previous conservation efforts in the area and open the door for even more projects.

“Infrastructure begets infrastructure,” he said. “Once that this project gets built, you’ve already got the impacts. So if you want to add something additional, it makes it easier to do that.”

A group of local environmental groups, including Else’s, requested and recently received additional documentation on the SunZia’s path to federal approval. Whether that will lead to a lawsuit, or to more indirect pushback, Else won’t say.

“We’re not talking about plans publicly,” he said.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News.