SunZia: Reports of project’s demise greatly exaggerated

Reports that military and political opposition in New Mexico could result in the death of the $1.2bn SunZia Southwest transmission project have been greatly exaggerated, the project’s manager told TransmissionHub July 29.

An article that originated with the Alamogordo Daily News and was subsequently picked up by major news outlets including the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the Department of Defense (DOD) and others still harbor concerns that the route preferred by the developers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could threaten the training mission at White Sands Missile Range.

Further, the article continued, those concerns could sound the death knell for the project because developers said they would “end the project if their preferred route is rejected by the federal government.”

While concerns on the part of the White Sands leaders and one member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation who are worried that the line could have an impact on nearby training missions have been well documented, the report’s conclusion was neither correct nor likely, according to project manager Tom Wray.

“The military opposition is only from White Sands,” Wray said, noting that much of the opposition grew out of the preferred alignment in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS). New information and realignment of the preferred route in the final EIS should allay the concerns of base leadership.

“We have moved the line farther north than it was in the draft EIS” to an alignment 30 miles north of the base’s northern boundary, he said. At that point, the preferred alignment crosses BLM and state trust lands rather than military land.

In addition to adjusting the alignment, developers have offered to reduce the height of the towers along that portion of the line from 135 feet to 90 feet. They have also performed a radar line-of-sight test that shows the concerns about conflict with training missions have been addressed.

“With White Sands making a reasonable adjustment to their test profile, and us shortening our structures on our end, I think it’s going to work itself out,” Wray said. “We’ll get this agreed-upon mitigation.”

Wray believes the erroneous conclusion may have come from a January letter he sent to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. At that time, the BLM was considering ordering a supplemental EIS, which would have delayed the project by an additional two to three years. That additional delay could have caused investors to back out because the delay would have given an advantage to other proposed transmission lines.

BLM is expected to issue its record of decision in September.

“We anticipate closure of the NEPA process here in the next few months and then commencing the state permitting process, which will be the next hurdle for the project to clear,” a spokesperson for SunZia told TransmissionHub July 29.

The company expects to commence the state permitting process in 4Q13, with state regulatory approvals granted from New Mexico and Arizona next year.

The project, which is one of seven selected for fast-track treatment by the Obama Administration’s interagency rapid response team for transmission (RRTT), will promote the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy and increase reliability of the existing high voltage transmission systems in New Mexico and southern Arizona. 

From Wray’s perspective, the project enjoys broad-based support.

“There is opposition from one member of the [state’s congressional] delegation,” Wray said, referring to Representative Steve Pearce (R-N.M. 2). “The rest of the delegation, including both senators, supports the project.” In addition, the chairs of the Grant County and Luna County commissions, the mayor of Deming, N.M., and a range of local leaders have spoken out in favor of the project and the benefits it would bring to their communities.

The 515-mile SunZia project will originate at the new SunZia East substation in New Mexico and heads west, with significant portions running parallel to I-25 and the Rio Grande River. The route follows a pipeline corridor north of I-10 in New Mexico and continues into Arizona, where it alternately uses existing pipeline and utility corridors where available before terminating at a new substation in Pinal County near Coolidge, Ariz.

The project is being sponsored by a consortium of five companies. Three of those companies – Southwestern Power Group II/MMR Group, Shell WindEnergy Inc., and Tucson Electric Power – are sponsoring 86% of the project. Salt River Project has a 13% stake and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has a 1% interest.

Rosy Lum contributed to this article.