LAS CRUCES >> The SunZia power transmission line, planned to carry renewable energy across New Mexico, Arizona and California, appears to be back on its original track following a request by the State Land Office to review a route north of the White Sands Missile Range call-up area.
At issue were concerns by Land Commisioner Aubrey Dunn that the proposed northern route would affect the WSMR northern call-up area used for military training and missile testing. The area can be evacuated as needed by the military.
Following a review of the path for the 515-mile, extra-high-voltage transmission line designed to transmit up to 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy from New Mexico and Arizona to utilities across the southwest, SunZia opted to continue on the original path, approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior in January and by the State Land Office and the U.S. Department of Defense.
“At the request of the State Land Office, the SunZia project team and the Department of Defense recently reviewed a new alignment located north of the White Sands Missile Range’s northern call-up area boundary,” said Ian Calkins, spokesman for SunZia. “This alignment would have avoided most of WSMR’s evacuation areas. It was decided to not pursue the new alignment following several months of evaluation and discussions with the State Land Office and the Department of Defense. The new alignment did not materially benefit WSMR’s operations when compared to the preferred alternative route as set forth in the (U.S.) Bureau of Land Management’s record of decision (in January), and would result in additional costs to the project.”
The decision not to move the line is still of concern and the state worked with the transmission company to not only minimize the impact on WSMR but also other state historical assets, Dunn said.
“The State Land Office worked with SunZia to locate the route further north to avoid two burial sites and miss a large portion of the call-up area. The reroute would not affect any BLM land and would have placed the line further north, near Willard and Duran, close to the El Cabo wind project on state trust lands,” Dunn said. “The Department of Defense was not flexible and SunZia decided to stay on the original route. The alternative would have moved miles of the route out of the call-up area.”
SunZia will bury a portion, roughly 5 miles, of the transmission line to minimize the impact on the call-up area.
“The State Land Office tried to act as an intermediary but was unsuccessful,” Dunn said. “The northern alternative route would have significantly helped White Sands’ mission.”
Amid public concerns and uncertainty about impacts to state trust lands, Dunn suspended SunZia’s right-of-entry permit in early 2015 and sought additional public input to review the proposed project. During the public meetings, many landowners expressed concern regarding the project’s siting and adequate compensation for rights-of-way across their lands.
SunZia will continue to coordinate with the land office for right-of-way leases over state trust lands in the BLM’s preferred alternative route, Calkins said. About 89 miles of the project in New Mexico traverses state trust lands. Final engineering and acquisition of private right-of-way is expected to take 18-to-24 months to complete. The company plans to begin construction in 2018 and be in service by late 2020.
“Developing a transmission project of this size and scope, involving numerous state and federal agencies naturally takes time,” Calkins said. “The sooner the regulatory process concludes, the sooner New Mexico can begin reaping the economic benefits of unleashing the state’s vast renewable energy potential.
“Demand for clean and reliable energy has grown exponentially stronger since SunZia was originally conceived,” he said. “Additionally, states in the Southwest will need projects like SunZia in order to comply with significant new air emission reduction targets established by EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Large utilities will be the project’s customers.”
Dunn said the impacts of the transmission line would include a benefit to the central New Mexico renewable energy projects, but would come with a cost.
“The … scenic beauty of the area would be greatly affected,” Dunn said. “Other negative impacts would include recreational uses, grazing operations, mineral activities and other revenue-generating activities. Those factors would be addressed after right-of-ways and right-of-entry applications are received.”
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