Renewable energy transmission projects create tension among greens


In mid June, I received two very different press releases from two environmental groups announcing the same event: The Bureau of Land Management’s release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed SunZia high voltage transmission line that would stretch from central New Mexico to the fringes of Phoenix, Ariz. The document is the penultimate step before what appears will be a favorable decision for the line.

The first came from Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based group that has been involved in issues such as oil shale, oil and gas drilling, and river preservation since 1989. “The SunZia project is incredibly complex,” Gary Graham, Director of the organization’s land program, is quoted as saying in the release, “but if we can do it here we can do it anywhere. It opens the floodgates for renewable energy development and a new route toward a clean energy future.”

A transmission tower's base near the Moenkopi substation in northern Arizona. Jonathan Thompson photo.

Contrast that to the second release that hit my virtual mailbox, from the Cascabel Working Group, a grassroots organization “concerned with the cultural and ecological integrity of the lower/middle San Pedro Valley” in Arizona: “The BLM has advanced this project without realistically or honestly assessing its actual use, need, or feasibility in order to expedite a wishful policy ... (and) is sacrificing an irreplaceable Arizona environmental gem that governmental agencies – including the BLM itself – corporations, public interest groups, and individuals have worked for more than three decades to protect.”

No, this is not some mixup. Both statements refer to the very same project, and both do come from genuine environmental groups, they’re just coming from radically different perspectives. You’ve got your grid-oriented greens on the one hand, who believe that the only way to slow or reverse climate change is by attacking it on a large scale, with big wind farms, big solar plants and big power lines to ship it across long distances. And on the other, the grassroots groups who feel that sacrificing local ecosystems to fight climate change isn’t the answer. It’s the type of green on green scuffle we’re likely to see more of in the near future as the Obama administration fast-tracks long-distance, high voltage power lines across the West in order to shore up the aging grid and enable more renewable energy development.

SunZia -- one of seven lines on that list, five of which are in the West -- is a merchant line, meaning it’s being developed by a private party, the SouthWestern Power Group, not a utility, and was originally intended to carry natural gas-generated power from the group’s proposed plant in Bowie, Ariz., westward. But the gas plant has yet to be built, and developers saw opportunities further to the east, in the wind-rich area of central New Mexico, where a lack of transmission capacity has left potential wind farms “stranded.” If it’s built, the SunZia will enable the development of more New Mexico wind that could be sold to Arizona or California utilities (Salt River Project, which serves most of metro Phoenix, is an investor in the line). Thus the enthusiasm from Western Resource Advocates and others.

The Obama administration chose seven transmission projects, including five in the West, as Rapid Response Team Pilot Projects. The goal is to streamline the arduous permitting process with better coordination between the various agencies that must vet such projects. Department of Energy map.

But stringing 500 miles of wire across a place like southern Arizona and New Mexico and a dozen different jurisdictions is bound to be strewn with hurdles. The Cascabel folks, who have taken up opposition to SunZia as their prime raison d’etre, have attacked the project on a number of fronts. Of most concern is that under the BLM’s preferred alternative, the line will first cross the ecologically-rich San Pedro River, then follow it for 45 miles, which would not only be an eyesore but also cause problems for birds. The Wilderness Society, which tends to occupy a middle ground on transmission, also opposes the preferred route, primarily because it goes through the San Pedro Valley. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has also joined the opposition.

And the San Pedro will pay, says a Cascabel report authored by Mick Meador, for a transmission line that will likely carry as much non-green power as from green sources. The Bowie Power Station, for which the line was initially planned, is still on the table, and other gas plants sit near the line’s path.

This is a common catch with so-called green transmission lines: Though they may enable wind or solar to be developed and transported, no one can guarantee the nature of the power flowing through them because of the nature of the grid (interconnected like a web through which power finds the easiest path to its consumers), and because  federal regulations require transmission lines to allow access to any type of energy. There’s also the question of need. Arizona may be able to reach its renewable portfolio standard of 15 percent without importing New Mexico wind power. California, meanwhile, requires that 75 percent of its renewables -- which must make up one-third of its energy mix -- come from in-state sources or projects that can hook directly into the California grid, which SunZia would not do. Of course, if there is no need, there will be no “tenants” signing up for the line, and no money to build the thing.

The BLM could make a final decision on the line as early as August.

Meanwhile, the BLM launched the process that will likely lead to a similar debate further north. In early July, the agency released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the TransWest Express, another high-voltage transmission line, also on the fast-track list, that would move wind power from Wyoming westward. The 700-mile line is being developed by the Anschutz Company, and it would start in Sinclair, Wyo., just a stone’s throw from the same company’s massive proposed wind farm. It will be a direct current line, meaning little or no opportunity for other power generators to interconnect along the route, easing concerns that it will be filled up with fossil fuel-generated power. But it will go directly across Utah, with the potential of slicing across sensitive landscapes on the way.

The floodgates are indeed opening, albeit incrementally -- it may be years before either of these projects are actually built. The question is, what will be washed away in the process?

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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