There is a plan to catch the powers of nature in New Mexico and filter it through transmission lines from the Eastern part of the state to Arizona and beyond. I have been hearing, and reporting, about this power adventure since its concept in 2006, the strange and ambitious scheme to stretch a massive set of power lines right through the whole of southern New Mexico.
Part of the delay has been because of the massive concern of the people of Torrance, Valencia, Lincoln, Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties who will see this metal and wire structure cross their landscapes. Not only will the lines cause visual pollution, but people believe there are many potential environmental hazards to ecosystems and their attached waterways, plants and critters.
Since the beauty of our landscape and uniqueness of our ecology is a huge part of the canvas on which Desert Exposure relies, I asked our Sustainable World writer, Wendy Hamilton, to see what was happening with this massive project and it turns out, it is indeed proceeding – and now:
SunZia Transmission Lines will provide new revenue
When transmission begins, the much-delayed New Mexico SunZia Wind Transmission project will provide an estimated $196 million in state, city, and county income over its 50-year life. Revenues from property taxes, land payments, and utilities will fund New Mexico schools, universities and hospitals.
The project’s 900 turbines will deliver 3,000 megawatts of mostly renewable electricity, enough to power 2.5 million people. When power generation begins, the $8 billion project will become one of the largest wind-energy projects in the western hemisphere. Overseen by the NM State Land Office, the project is in addition to the already established 26 wind and 12 solar energy leases. These projects go a long way toward reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and will make giant strides for the state’s role in renewable energy.
But why has the SunZia Wind Transmission project taken so long to get off the drawing board? Perhaps the project better deserves the name “Patience” given that from its 2006 proof of concept to its nearly shovel ready status today, it has been in the works for 16 years.
The project was evaluated through the National Environmental Policy Act process from 2009 to 2015 including an extensive public feedback period. In 2016, a Record of Decision was issued calling for yet another four additional issues to be resolved that required another public comment period ending Aug. 1, 2022. A final Environmental Impact Statement had to resolve the authorization and temporary use of federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. This meant planners had to submit a new 2016 project application providing agreed-upon transmission route resolutions.
The four transmission route issues requiring reparations included modifications to address private landowner rights-of-way; temporary work access and right-of-way changes to roads; White Sands Missile Range solutions requested by the Department of Defense to bury three transmission line sections that would otherwise have adverse impacts on operations in the Range’s northern area; and Arizona substation construction issues. Recently received regulatory approvals on these four issues will appear in the Federal Register by April 2023.
The now permitted route will cross 520 miles of federal, state and private lands between central New Mexico and central Arizona originating at a Torrance County substation. Power sent from wind turbines (and some solar farms) will traverse the New Mexico counties, then cross into Arizona and head through Graham, Greenlee, Cochise, Pima and Pinal counties where they terminate at the Pinal County substation. The Pinal substation will connect to other transmission systems for further exportation into Arizona and California.
Construction will be carried out by Pattern Energy, a privately owned Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. Pattern expects the SunZia Transmission Project to be fully operational in 2025.
The completion of the SunZia project, in combination with the 2021 newly completed Western Spirit 377 tower wind project, will deliver a combined 4,500 megawatts of renewable electricity to 3.3 million customers per year (a little less than the total population of Los Angeles County, California). In total, the two projects create 2,000 jobs during their construction phases and establish 150 permanent jobs when the wind power and transmission infrastructure goes into full operation.
SunZia Transmission will create a clean power superhighway for millions of Americans by opening access to huge, largely untapped wind energy resources in New Mexico. Proponents say the potential for wind power could generate a profound shift in the state, allowing two things it possesses in abundance — endless winds and huge stretches of empty land — to be widely used to create revenues and energy. Wind projects like SunZia and Western Spirit provide revenue through taxes and land leases.
These projects provide short-and long-term jobs as well as pay property taxes for the long term. In 2021, wind energy accounted for 30 percent of New Mexico’s electricity generation, five times more than in 2015. This state is uniquely positioned to supply all its own electric needs as well as supply western states with renewable energy. Projects like SunZia illustrate the large potential New Mexico has for renewable expansion and economic prosperity.
Elva K. Österreich is editor of Desert Exposure and can be contacted at email@example.com or by phone at 575-443-4408.
Wendy Hamilton, Ed.D, New Mexico State University emeritus professor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.