Military may be delaying SunZia project – NM officials

Several elected officials in New Mexico are concerned that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is wavering in its acceptance of the preferred route for the SunZia Southwest transmission project included in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), and have written to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to ask that the secretary expedite the release of the project’s final EIS.

In May 2011, the DOD’s Defense Energy Siting Clearinghouse proposed an alignment for the project that was deemed compatible with military missions in New Mexico, including operations at the White Sands Missile Range. In May 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued its draft EIS with a preferred route that respected military operations within restricted airspace north of the military reservation.

However, leadership at the military base changed in September 2012 when Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham took over as base commander. One official says that change in leadership is a factor that is contributing to the shifting sands beneath the project’s feet.

“It’s difficult to know what to do for somebody when they keep changing the ‘somebodys’, and they have their beliefs on what to do,” Luna County, N.M., Commission Chairman Javier Diaz told TransmissionHub on March 8. “The people in Washington were OK with whatever project alignment was good for everybody, but when it gets down to [the local] level, it changes, and that’s what we’d like remedied.”

In a joint letter to Salazar co-signed by Deming, N.M., Mayor Andres Silva, Diaz said projects like SunZia can be a catalyst to create growth in high unemployment areas of the state.

“Our economic base is low and we don’t have a lot of jobs here,” Diaz said, noting that the taxes paid by the project owners would ultimately benefit the local citizens.

“The citizens benefit through building of roads and other projects within the city [including] improving public facilities,” like community and youth centers, he said. “Not having the transmission line – the highway – to move this electricity, and we’re dead in the water.”

Diaz and Silva closed their joint communiqué by asking that the Interior Department “release the final EIS without any further delay and/or study.”

Diaz said he has not received a response to the Feb. 13 letter.

In a separate communication to Salazar and copied to members of the state’s Congressional delegation, Grant County, N.M., Commission Chairman Brett Kasten articulated similar themes.

“It is apparent to many that the military continues to bring up new reasons why SunZia conflicts with military activities,” even after the DOD’s May 2011 letter that suggested a route that was compatible with military missions, and which the BLM ultimately selected as the preferred alternative.

While acknowledging the economic benefits the military brings to the area, Kasten said the state also needs the additional revenues that the generation and transmission of renewable energy would bring.

“New Mexico has wind, solar, and geothermal capabilities, but without much needed transmission, the resources in New Mexico will not be utilized,” Kasten wrote.

In January, Salazar announced his intention to step down as Interior Secretary by the end of March. At present, however, he continues to be active in the position.

SunZia is planned as approximately 530 miles of two single-circuit 500-kV transmission lines and associated substations that stretch from northern Lincoln County, N.M., to southeastern Arizona. The project will interconnect with numerous 345-kV lines in both states, and will connect and deliver electricity generated in Arizona and New Mexico to population centers in the Desert Southwest, according to the developer.

The 530-mile preferred alternative route identified by the BLM in the draft EIS comprises 191 miles of federal lands, 226 miles of state lands and 113 miles of private or other lands in both states.

The project is being sponsored by a consortium of five companies: Southwestern Power Group II/MMR Group, Shell WindEnergy, Tucson Electric Power, Salt River Project, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

SunZia is one of seven projects selected for fast-track treatment by the Obama Administration’s interagency rapid response team for transmission (RRTT), a joint effort of nine federal agencies charged with improving the overall quality and timeliness of electric transmission infrastructure permitting, review, and consultation by the federal government on both federal and non-federal lands.