SunZia transmission project wins key federal approval

The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project received a Record of Decision (ROD) on Jan. 24 from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for its proposed transmission project covering 515 miles between New Mexico and Arizona.

The ROD concludes the federal permitting effort, which officially began in May 2009, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“We are excited to reach this milestone and to be one major step closer to unleashing the renewable energy potential of the southwest and creating jobs” said Tom Wray, SunZia Project Manager, in a Jan. 24 statement. “Reaching an agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense to take measures to preserve and protect the current and future missions of the White Sands Missile Range was the final hurdle in this process and a huge accomplishment in itself. And none of this would have been possible without the exhaustive and thorough environmental review and analysis conducted by BLM.”

Development efforts will now turn towards seeking state and local siting approvals in New Mexico and Arizona. SunZia noted that it reached a number of milestones during its federal permitting efforts, including designation by the White House as one of only seven transmission projects in the country to receive accelerated permitting treatment, formal sponsorship by the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority and initial agreement with Boston-based First Wind Energy to receive anchor tenant status. SunZia said it will have additional announcements as other developments currently underway reach completion.

SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is an extra-high-voltage transmission project that will help enable the delivery of energy, including renewable energy, to customers in the Desert Southwest, while greatly improving the reliability of the existing high voltage electrical grid. The system will span 515 miles between Arizona and New Mexico. It includes up to two new 500-kV transmission lines and five electrical substations that will provide up to 3,000 MW of new capacity. Once all local, state and federal permits have been obtained, final design and engineering, acquisition of rights-of-way, and construction are scheduled to begin in 2016, with operation scheduled by 2020.

The Interior Department noted in a Jan. 24 statement that this $2bn project will help enable future development of wind and solar energy from New Mexico and Arizona, providing renewable power to the growing desert Southwest region. The project is expected to create over 6,000 jobs during construction and support over 100 permanent jobs once online.

“The SunZia Project will help unlock the abundant renewable energy resources in the Southwest, creating jobs and bringing reliable, sustainable power to a growing corner of our country,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “I applaud all of our partners that collaborated to ensure that this infrastructure charts a course that makes sense for our economy, environment and national security.”

Working closely with the Department of Defense, the BLM identified mitigation measures to protect military capabilities at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, including burial of three segments totaling approximately five miles in Socorro and Torrance counties. The route of the transmission lines also avoids major population centers and cultural sites, and parallels existing power lines, highways and pipelines where possible.

The SunZia Project is one of six priority projects of the Obama Administration’s Rapid Response Team for Transmission, which works to improve the overall quality and timeliness of permitting for electric transmission infrastructure. When built, these projects will help increase electric reliability, integrate new renewable energy into the grid, and save consumers money. SunZia is the first of the priority projects approved in its entirety in the West by the BLM.

Approval of the project follows an extensive public process initiated by the BLM in 2009 that included fourteen cooperating federal and state agencies, three public scoping periods, 28 public meetings, and consultation with American Indian tribes and local governments.

SunZia sponsors include the Salt River Project, Shell WindEnergy and Tucson Electric Power.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.