Lance Grace laid out the reasons for military objections to the proposed route of the SunZia wind power transmission line for Ruidoso village councilors last week. Councilors requested the background information, but did not take an official position on the issue, because the item was not listed on the regular agenda for action.
Grace is considered an expert on the White Sands Missile Range, having accumulated more flight test time and experience as a test pilot on the range than anyone in the history of the range while he was commander of the 586th Flight Test Squadron.
During his career that began with earned degrees in engineering sciences and astronautical engineering, he flew and taught flying in T-38s, F-15s, A-7s, F-16s, F-4Ds and other aircraft. He lives in Alamogordo, where he is involved with gliders, and is owner and co-owner of multiple companies.
While Grace said he favors the SunZia project, he opposes the route through the missile range. He listed the benefits of the transmission line project as creating an option to generate renewable power, delivering power to markets in California and Arizona, increasing reliability, creating jobs and income and improving the power transfer capabilities in the desert Southwest.
“They looked at a lot of different approaches initially, but they settled on the preferred alternative going from an east substation south of Corona (in northern Lincoln County) to a midpoint substation in Deming,” he said. He showed a map illustrating areas of the country with high average wind speeds and northeastern New Mexico fell right into the mix.
“If you’ve driven through Texas, you’ve seen those fields with hundred of those (wind turbines),” he said. The biggest cost of saddling those winds to produce power is the transmission lines, he said. Much more of the proposed SunZia transmission line falls within the missile range than the map publicized by SunZia indicates, he said. He showed councilors the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred route, the actual route that encompasses range extension areas and the Department of Defense preferred route that stays out of the range and northern extension area.
All of the air space from surface to infinity in the missile range is restricted, Grace said. “There is not a lot of restricted air space in the United States,” he said. “Most of it is off the coast. Airliners do not fly through.”
“The first thing you do (with a project), is do no harm,” he said. “White Sands Missile Range is the largest over-land defense range in the United States. It has a unique environment that cannot be replicated and provides 9,000 jobs with more than $2.3 million pumped into the southern New Mexico economy daily. The real important part of the environment is that the ground is controlled by the Army. When you drop stuff out of the sky, whether it is bombs or aircraft or missiles, it probably is a good idea to have control over the people,” and on the range, they are military or contract workers.
Lance said another special aspect of the range is that the electromagnetic energy is well regulated and monitored, which is critical to every weapons system. Guided missiles use electromagnetic sensors to find their targets, he said.
Study raised questions
The independent Lincoln Laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the top authority on radar systems, was paid last year to conduct a study of the route’s impacts, Grace said. Staff examined potential damage to lines from test articles, a risk that they found in the unpublished results to be at an acceptable level; obstructions to aircraft and weapons, and electromagnetic interference, both found to be not acceptable, Grace told councilors.
The Department of Interior, under which the Bureau of Land Management operates, has to respond to the document before a record of decision can be issued, “We’re waiting on an executive decision,” Grace said, contending the BLM preferred route represents an unacceptable national security risk. A letter going over the analysis was sent to President Barack Obama, members of the New Mexico congressional delegation and to the governor, he said.
Ruidoso Councilor Gloria Sayers asked what were the major criticism of Defense Department’s plan. Grace said it is a longer route and that means more money. A small section also falls outside the route previously studied, which would mean more time to complete an environment assessment.
An alternative was suggested to bury 35 miles of the line, Grace said. “That sounds easy, but burying costs a lot more, three to five times as much,” he said.
If both the BLM and DOD routes are killed, will someone come up with a third, Sayers asked.
“I don’t know what a third would be, there’s only bury or go around,” Grace said. The MIT report offered an option of burying five miles and leaving the rest optional, but he questioned if that would be a realistic compromise.
Councilor Joseph Eby pointed out that the DOD proposed route is not far from missile range boundary and questioned whether the interference might be significant. Grace replied that some interference would occur, “but it dissipates fairly quickly. It’s not a perfect world. A perfect world would send it 200 miles away.” Other less loaded and lower lines serving cities also cross a portion of the range, he said.
Councilor Lynn Crawford said lobbyists have been working the project for years and he’s surprised it still is in question.
“If it were to go through White Sands, what is the military’s plan?” he asked. “What would you do if you can’t fly through there. I didn’t hear any mention of the lives that may be lost, if you flew through these.”
Grace said he didn’t know what the alternative would be other than to decrease operations. A portion of the range is used nightly for training flights from Albuquerque and Clovis, he said.
“There’s a possibility, (the military programs) would go somewhere else outside the continental United States,” Crawford said. “This is the only place you can do all this testing.”
The range is the only place over land that military drones fly as targets used to test missiles, Grace said.
Crawford said “green” power projects have received substantial government and taxpayer subsidies and not one is paying for itself yet. Grace agreed. Crawford said he’s read that if projects are abandoned, the 250-foot turbine towers could be left standing for private landowners to handle.
“People need to look at their leases,” Crawford said. “The people in Corona say it’s a personal property issue and they can do what they want on their land. They say they need to generate revenue, but they have no clue what they would do with those things.
“We need to preserve the integrity of the testing ground we have there, because it’s irreplaceable. If we lose it, your mission has to change.”
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