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What we know about New Mexico's proposed 500 mile renewable energy power lines

Article Republished By Javier Troconis

New Mexico’s bourgeoning renewable energy sector could supply thousands of volts of power to urban markets to the west in California and Arizona.

To do that, the state will need the infrastructure to transport power from wind and solar installations in southeast New Mexico across the state.

That’s why the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was studying the environmental impact of the proposed SunZia Southwest Transmission Project and amendments the agency approved in 2015.

The project would see two 500 kilovolt transmission lines carrying up to 4,500 megawatts of electricity, mostly from renewable sources, from rural New Mexico to homes and businesses in the two states to the west.

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It would travel 520 miles across state, federal and private lands, bolstering the market for New Mexico’s wind and solar power as production grows amid a statewide push to decarbonize its energy sectors.

The BLM on April 29 released a draft environmental impact statement for the SunZia project, opening a 60-day public comment period running until July 28.

Public meetings were also planned to be scheduled this year, per a BLM news release, to solicit more feedback on the project.

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Here’s what we know about the proposal’s latest form and how New Mexicans can participate in the process.   

Why is the SunZia project needed?

New Mexico’s renewable energy sector is growing quickly, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham since taking office in 2019 sought to increase the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

That meant several large-scale wind and solar projects were being built throughout the state and utility providors like Xcel Energy made commitments to decarbonize their operations entirely in the coming years and decades.

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Records from the New Mexico State Land Office showed there were 16 active leases for wind power projects in the state, representing 619 megawatts of total capacity.

But the 12 lease applications the Land Office had on file, records show, would more than quadruple the capacity to add 2,570 megawatts to New Mexico’s wind power generation.

Solar power was poised for similar growth, with 35 lease applications on file, records show, for 3,146 megawatts of added capacity to join just 303 megawatts on 11 active leases.

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That’s a lot of growth in both wind and solar, and the SunZia would act as a conduit to export all that energy out of New Mexico to larger, urban markets in Arizona and California.

Where will the transmission lines start, and where will they end?

SunZia’s route begins at a substation in Torrance County where power is sent from wind turbines and solar panels, then traverses Lincoln, Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties in New Mexico.

It crosses into Arizona and heads through Graham, Greenlee, Conchise, Pima and Pinal counties in Arizona where it terminates at another substation and can then be connected to other transmission systems for further exportation.

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What are the proposed amendments to the project?

There are four components of the SunZia’s route that were proposed to be altered by the BLM, avoiding environmental impacts and interactions with other federal or state lands.

Rights of way were proposed to be changed to avoid difficulties acquiring access to private lands in the region, adding about 4.7 miles to the length of the lines.

The BLM also asked to add a right of way for about 844 miles of access roads throughout the project, with 804 permanent miles and about 40 miles of temporary roads.

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There would also be 1,402 acres of added temporary work areas to support construction of the lines.

Another proposed adjustment was to shift the path of the lines around the northern call-up area of White Sands Missile Range.

SunZia Transmission went before the PRC's Hearing Examiner seeking approval for zoning and right of way Tuesday. The PRC will make its decision at a later meeting.

This area is not a permanent section of the missile range but the federal government can “call up” the land to restrict access when it is needed for testing or other operations.

That shift would also allow SunZia to run parallel with the West Spirit Transmission Project, a 345 kilovolt transmission project for wind generation projects and move the eastern substation in Torrance County closer to other wind power projects.

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Going around White Sands would add about 92 miles to the project.

The western substation in Arizona was also proposed to be used to convert the power from direct current to alternating current so it can be used to power homes and business.

This would require one of SunZia’s two lines be alternating current and the other to be direct or alternating.

The direct line would require additional equipment to convert to alternating current at each of the project’s end points.

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How can you participate in the decision-making process?

The BLM published its draft environmental impact statement for the SunZia project in the Federal Register, which gives people the change to submit comments online through the register.

During the 90-day comment period, the BLM said it would plan three public meetings for additional discussion.  

Comments can also be submitted on the BLM’s website at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2011785/510.

Mailed comments are addressed to SunZia Comment Period, Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico State Office

301 Dinosaur Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87508.

There is also a hotline for verbal comments at 1-888-959-2510.

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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