Embattled Southwest project secures pledge from large wind developer to use power line

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A large wind energy developer has committed to use the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project if built, a rare bit of good news for a project that has been dogged by criticism from congressional leaders, Defense Department officials and environmentalists who have questioned claims that the line will support renewables development.

The project’s developer, Phoenix-based SunZia Transmission LLC, announced late Friday that it has a formal letter of intent from Boston-based First Wind Energy LLC reserving up to 1,500 megawatts of electricity capacity on the planned New Mexico-to-Arizona power line.

The Obama administration has made the project a priority, arguing the 515-mile-long line is needed to develop huge wind power resources in central New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, solar power in Arizona. The SunZia line is projected to carry as much as 4,500 MW of electricity, or enough to power 1.5 million homes, and is viewed as critical to meeting renewable portfolio standards in both New Mexico, where 20 percent of generation must come from renewables by 2020, and Arizona, which must meet a 15 percent RPS by 2025.

The Bureau of Land Management in June released a multivolume final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the power line project, and a record of decision authorizing it to move to construction is expected by next month (E&ENews PM, June 14).

The project’s first anchor tenant “marks yet another major accomplishment in the progress made thus far for the SunZia project,” said Tom Wray, the project manager for SunZia Transmission.

In addition, Wray said that “expressed interest for transmission service” from other renewable energy developers along the planned project’s route has been very strong.

John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, said the company is in the “very early stages” of developing wind farm projects “in a number of locations in New Mexico” and that increased transmission capacity in the state provided by the SunZia project is needed.

“Transmission issues are critical for developing renewable energy in New Mexico, and we are hopeful the line could be built to deliver clean, renewable power from New Mexico projects,” Lamontagne said.

The Obama administration has identified the SunZia transmission line as a priority in large part because it would serve an area with potentially significant wind resources — and because wind farms will not be built without the ability to transport the electricity they produce to major load centers as far away as Los Angeles.

“Wind is one of New Mexico’s valuable energy resources,” Kurt Adams, First Wind’s executive vice president and chief development officer, said in a statement.

The Western Governors’ Association and the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority have estimated there could be as much as 11,000 MW of wind power capacity in central and eastern New Mexico alone.

The proposed starting point for the SunZia line in east-central New Mexico “targets a significant cluster of wind resources,” and existing wind farms are already operating in the area, according to a study last year conducted by Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics and the Tucson, Ariz.-based Sonoran Institute. The study examined potential economic and energy market conditions and projected federal and state energy policies in the next decade and beyond (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2012).

“If SunZia can resolve its siting challenges, First Wind plans to accelerate the development of this project in central New Mexico,” Adams said.

Significant opposition

But the future of the project remains cloudy because the power line’s proposed route is strongly opposed by, among others, the Defense Department.

A senior DOD official last month wrote Neil Kornze, BLM’s principal deputy director, stating that the military “officially objects” to a roughly 35-mile section of the line that would run through restricted airspace along the northern boundary of the Army’s White Sands Missile Range — the nation’s largest military installation, covering 3,200 square miles (Greenwire, Aug. 12).

Stringing a portion of the high-tower transmission lines within the restricted airspace of the missile range’s Northern Extension Area would compromise the missile range’s mission, DOD argues.

The military’s objections prompted New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce (R), whose district includes the White Sands Missile Range, to question BLM’s proposed route in the final EIS. Pearce has urged the agency to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better alternative.

But New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) has strongly defended the project against the DOD criticism, asserting that completing the line is critical to New Mexico’s economy. “If the project is withdrawn, it will significantly damage New Mexico’s prospects for large-scale renewable energy development,” Heinrich wrote last month in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

But environmental groups and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D) also have criticized the project because the proposed route would pass through the San Pedro River Valley in southern Arizona, which is an important layover for more than 4 million migratory birds each year and provides habitat for deer, bobcats and mountain lions.

The San Pedro River also is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and some groups fear the towers and lines, if not properly sited, could interrupt that flow. The Wilderness Society and Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, have expressed concerns about routing the line through the San Pedro Valley.

Some of those groups have also questioned whether wind and solar generators would primarily use the power line.

The letter of intent making First Wind an anchor tenant for the line should ease those concerns, Ian Calkins, a spokesman for SunZia Transmission, said in an email.

“The First Wind announcement is significant because it shows there’s demand and need for SunZia’s planned transmission,” Calkins said. “It also confirms that SunZia will help to unleash stranded renewable energy resources, such as wind energy.”