SunZia not a done deal

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The controversial SunZia Southwest Transmission Project may or may not survive its initial phase, depending upon negotiations with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about re-routing or burying sections of the project’s proposed high voltage power line across areas critical to both the White Sands Missile Range and migratory waterfowl flyways.

The White Sands Missile Range and the New Mexico National Guard are adamantly opposed to siting the 100- to 145-foot-tall towers carrying the twin 500-kilovolt lines above ground in any part of the call-up area.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has published the final environmental impact statement for the project. The Socorro County portion of the proposed high-voltage SunZia power line route, carrying electricity generated by wind farms near Estancia 515 miles through New Mexico to eastern Arizona, now runs below Johnson Hill road about 30 miles north of the White Sands Missile Range before crossing the Rio Grande just south of Escondida Lake and heading west on New Mexico Tech property between Strawberry Peak and Socorro Mountain to an existing El Paso Electric power line right-of-way.

The final route protects views from the Gran Quivera National Monument and attempts to mitigate the military’s concerns about effects of the line on crucial training and testing missions in its call-up area, private land north of the Quebradas Back Country Byway where landowners have given the military permission to conduct critical missile testing and aircraft training missions.

The previous preferred route had the line going along U.S. Highway 60 in northern Socorro County toward Bernardo before heading west along the northern boundary of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to the El Paso Electric right-of-way. This route satisfied the military’s concerns about impacts on their activities in the call-up area, but was nixed because of the line’s proximity to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

White Sands Missile Range advocates a northern route it proposed to the BLM, but that was dropped early in the environmental impact statement scoping process.

“Go around Sevilleta and maintain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mission,” said Dan Hicks, WSMR chief of staff. “All the cooperating agencies asked the BLM to consider a route along Highway 60 using existing utility corridors (and) highways … and then along the county road that skirts the northern edge of Ladrones Mountain and then intersects the 340 Kv (El Paso Electric) line. There’s little section of Forest Service land to keep it out of the (Sevilleta) refuge. Mitigation under the National Environmental Policy Act normally involves moving the (power) line to another location. If that’s not realistic, then you look at other mitigation issues.”

Changing the route to one not considered in the four-year scoping process is just not feasible at this late date, according to Socorro BLM field office manager Danita Burns.

“This is a route he (Hicks) proposed a while back,” Burns said. “The route was considered, but not analyzed, because there were too many issues going on over on the west side of the Sevilleta.”

She cited an important bighorn sheep corridor and a BLM area of critical environmental concern for habitat.

Since the route crosses the Cibola National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service would have to be brought to the table, starting a new environmental impact statement planning process.

“The Forest Service was not brought into this process,” she said, “so if we did consider it, the process would start all over again and we would have to go back to scoping. It would definitely delay the process. That route was out of the original study area.”

Hicks said the only other alternative acceptable to WSMR is burying the high-voltage line where it crosses the call-up area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants the line buried under the river as well to protect sandhill cranes, geese and other migrating waterfowl using the river corridor, according to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge manager Kathy Granillo.

The BLM has proposed reducing the size of the towers and burying only part of the 35-mile route in the call-up area.

“Lowering structures and then burying the line 10 to 20 miles will lessen the impacts to the military,” said BLM project manager Adrian Garcia. “We have to wait and see the committee’s conclusions.”

Garcia thinks burying the line isn’t a feasible option.

“Independent studies over the years have indicted that high-voltage lines, when you bury them, is expensive, reliability isn’t as good, and maintenance is a factor,” he said. “If the lines have to be buried, it would impact the viability of the project.”

Ian Calkins, spokesman for the SunZia project, agrees that requiring burial of the high-voltage lines across the entire call-up area may jeopardize the project.

“The suggestion is that the line be buried for 35 miles in the call-up area,” he said. “That’s a significant length. Burying transmission lines versus running in them in the traditional way can be 17 to 22 times more expensive. It’s a question of economics and technical feasibility.”

Calkins said the project is in just its initial permitting phase. The funding phase of the project depends on finding investors willing to underwrite the remainder of the project’s expected $1.2 billion cost. Investors aren’t usually willing to take on unproved technologies.

“We can’t answer the question that it’s technically feasible,” he said. “How do you line up investors willing to put up money for unproved technology? The same with economics. Are we talking about a half mile or 35 miles?”

Even without the problems crossing the call-up area, the fate of the project is uncertain.

“A project of this size and scope has huge hurdles,” he said. “We have other regulatory hurdles as well. We still have to get (state) approvals from New Mexico and Arizona.”

In addition, Arizona environmental groups oppose routing the power line through pristine sections of the San Pedro River valley.

Because the final route for the line hasn’t been finalized, SunZia has yet to negotiate with landowners to purchase easements on private property. As a non-governmental entity, SunZia does not have the right to condemn property needed for the project.

Despite everything, Calkins remains optimistic.

“There’s no foregone conclusion,” he said. “We are still in the process of trying to come up with mitigation that satisfies all parties. It’s premature to make the claim that it is either/or. We are still trying to figure out what the range needs to maintain its mission. That process is still unfolding.”

And there’s the states’ mandates to promote renewable energy. California requires 33 per cent of its energy to come from renewable sources, Arizona requires 15 per cent and New Mexico 20 per cent.

“States in the West have renewable energy standards that don’t appear to be changing,” he said. “There is no doubt we’ll have customers. We are tying into one of the windiest regions in the western United States. This area in New Mexico is one of the best. No doubt wind developers will be developing projects near the starting point of the project.”

The latest changes to the route were published in the U.S. Federal Register on June 14; those who had participated in the planning process were given a 30-day period to protest the amendments, but a technical working committee composed of military, SunZia and BLM experts are still negotiating mitigations needed along the route that will satisfy all parties. The route should be finalized by September. The record of decision and right-of-way permit will be published in the Federal Register at that time.