Former head of DoD Siting Clearinghouse says independent organization should evaluate SunZia route

The former executive director of the Department of Defense (DoD) Siting Clearinghouse says an independent scientific evaluation of the route alternatives for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project could help resolve the conflict between the DoD and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the preferred route and its potential impact on operations at the White Sands Missile Range.

“What we need are some really good physicists and radar engineers and electrical engineers to figure out, scientifically, what would happen if these test profiles were flown over a SunZia line,” David Belote, a retired Air Force colonel who was executive director of the clearinghouse from fall 2010 to June 2012, told TransmissionHub on Sept. 3. “We need to find a way to get some data and really understand what might happen there.”

In May 2011, under Belote’s leadership, the siting clearinghouse gave a “green light” to the project, subject to the condition that the developers would look at the possibility of moving the line farther north that originally proposed. However, if developers considered more northerly routes and found nothing that worked, the clearinghouse said the DoD could live with the alignment.

“Obviously, something changed within DoD,” Belote said.

In August, the DoD raised concerns that an aboveground transmission line would preclude the military’s capability to fully test weapons systems under realistic threat environments. In a letter to BLM leadership, a DoD official asserted that the BLM’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) “had not adequately analyzed the significant risk to national security should an above-ground transmission line be constructed” across the range’s northern extension, and noted that the BLM’s proposed route had been reviewed by a DoD technical working group.

Belote suggested the working group might not have had the level of expertise the situation required.

“The folks who did the technical working group report that came out in July … are civil engineers and Pentagon policy analysts,” he said. “I would argue that is of limited validity until you have an outsider test the contentions of the test engineers.”

Belote believes an outside analysis by an unaffiliated research and development center with specific expertise in radar and tests could provide valuable information about the validity of the various positions.

“A study like that … would tell the National Security Council whether the DoD’s contention that [the project] would ruin the test profile capability is correct, whether it’s incorrect, or the answer is in the middle and here’s a potential work-around,” he said. Further, such study would not have to reopen any of the NEPA procedures, and it could be accomplished in a relatively short time frame of three or four months, as opposed to a year or more if the NEPA process were reopened, he said.

While no formal proposal has been presented, a spokesperson for SunZia’s developers had a positive initial response.

“We would be supportive of any such effort that seeks a reasonable solution,” the spokesperson said. “SunZia wants to find a resolution that is reasonable and works for all the stakeholders involved, not just one over the other.”

The spokesperson said BLM has been working with the White Sands Missile Range for four years in an effort to avoid mission conflicts, but said the record shows that “every time the project meets the goal or the objective, the goal posts move again.”

An independent outside review would help keep the goal posts firmly in place, Belote said.

“I think that would be quite preferable to making a decision without as full and complete information as you can have,” he said.

With regard to the question of whether the project could have an impact on national security, Belote said not building it would also have an impact.

“Yes, DoD’s test capabilities are incredibly important, but getting cheap renewable energy from the resource to market … is also huge,” he said. “I think American energy independence is an equal facet of national security as is military capability, so I’m hopeful that we have that fully vetted, fully informed discussion soon.”

BLM is expected to issue its record of decision on the final EIS, including the preferred route alignment, in September.

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.

A consortium of five companies is sponsoring the project. 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% stake.