Defense Department agrees to study of potential conflict between SunZia and military ops

The Department of Defense (DoD) has agreed to commission a study to examine concerns raised by the White Sands Missile Range that the proposed SunZia Southwest transmission project would interfere with test protocols at the facility.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) who, in September, sent a letter to Undersecretary Frank Kendall, asking that DoD commission the study by M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory, announced the DoD’s agreement Nov. 15.

“We are assembling a team that will include MIT Lincoln Laboratory to examine the WSMR test profiles and targets flying in a clutter environment, along with the detection altitudes for different radar technologies,” Kendall said in his Oct. 18 response to Heinrich. “The team should complete the updated analysis in early 2014.”

Heinrich, project developers, and the former head of the DoD Siting Clearinghouse had separately called for such an independent analysis of the line’s effects on base operations.

“Lincoln Laboratory has a long history of creating innovative solutions to complex problems involving our nation’s radar systems and air- and missile-defense technology,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I commend the DoD for pursuing this pragmatic approach to identify measures that would allow for both the missions at [White Sands] to continue and for the construction of the SunZia transmission line.”

The study will examine concerns raised by base leaders that the presence of the line in the area north of the base known as the northern extension of the base would interfere with test protocols and thus affect national security. Lincoln Laboratory will also examine potential changes to test protocols that would allow the DoD to continue its missions in the presence of the new transmission line.

Heinrich was a vocal supporter of the proposed project prior to his most recent letter to DoD. On Aug. 19, he sent a three-page letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in which he said the project has been delayed long enough, and that additional delays would damage the credibility of the DoD siting clearinghouse, which gave the project a green light in 2011.

The SunZia project is one of seven projects selected as an early fast-track project for the nine-agency Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT). Accordingly, additional delays could erode the credibility of that effort, Heinrich said, noting that the RRTT “was intended to act as an example of how DoD and the U.S. Department of the Interior could work together to resolve energy siting conflicts quickly and collaboratively.”

As planned, the 515-mile SunZia project will originate at the new SunZia East substation in New Mexico and head 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 consortium of five companies sponsoring the project expects to begin the state permitting process before the end of 2013, with state regulatory approvals expected to be granted from New Mexico and Arizona next year.

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.