SunZia Transmission Line Could Be Approved Soon

The US$2 billion electric transmission line between Arizona and New Mexico does not pose a national security threat.
Published: Mon 15 Dec 2014

A proposed US$2 billion electric transmission line between Arizona and New Mexico that has become a priority for the Obama administration is close to receiving approval from the federal government.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released its environmental assessment of a compromise reached with the US Defense Department over the 828km-long (515 miles) line’s location.

The review found there would be no significant effects from burying a portion of the line to avoid interfering with operations at White Sands Missile Range. Officials were initially concerned the high-voltage line could reduce testing operations at the remote range and ultimately threaten national security.

Disagreement over the transmission line’s route resulted in the project being shelved last year. This resulted in a number of letters from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and the heads of the US Defense and Interior departments.

“None of these big rights of way projects are easy or of short duration, but this one has been especially difficult with the military issues as well as the river crossings and so forth,” said BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel. “We’re beginning to see the potential for light at the end of the tunnel.”

Developing the West’s grid

SunZia is one of seven pilot projects the Obama administration has put on a fast track in the hope of increasing renewable energy development mainly across the West. The projects cover 12 states, covering thousands of miles from Wyoming to Oregon and south to Nevada, and from central New Mexico to southern Arizona.

The US power grid consists of over 321,869km (200,000 miles ) of high-voltage lines. Experts say that the aging system has to be upgraded and more transmission and distribution will be necessary as the population and its demand increases. Approximately US$1.9 trillion is required to upgrade and replace existing transmission lines, electric substations and other infrastructure over the next 10 years.

“We do need to build out the electrical transmission system in the West,” said Ian Calkins, a spokesman for the SunZia project. “If you compare it, you see maps of the system on the East Coast and they’re more built out and complex. In the West, it’s pretty thin.”

But some environmentalists question whether changes to the management and regulation of the existing grid could put off the need for more transmission lines.

“With SunZia we have our concerns, but we have our priorities too,” Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians said about his group’s desire for more renewable energy development.

Increasing renewable energy development

The SunZia project aims to tap into stranded wind resources in central and western New Mexico as well pockets of solar and geothermal potential in New Mexico and Arizona. The line will export the generated electricity to larger markets in the West.

The public has 30 days to comment on the BLM’s findings. If further environmental review is unwarranted, the agency can move forward with a final decision.

SunZia would then have to get permits from the state and finalize its financing before construction can begin. Calkins said developers are hoping to have the transmission line operating within three years.