Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico’s billowing eastern plains offer immense wind energy potential, but the massive power lines needed to transport that electricity are generating a gust of opposition in some rural communities.
The most recent dust-up involves the Western Spirit Transmission Line, which the state’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority and private company Pattern Development are jointly building. The 150-mile line, expected to come online next year, will carry more than 800 megawatts of electricity from massive wind farms – still under construction by Pattern in central New Mexico near Corona – for sale in western states.
The five-member Valencia County Commission voted unanimously Jan. 15 to oppose the project, backed by a group of local landowners and residents that fears Western Spirit’s huge towers and miles of high-voltage lines will spoil their rural quality of life by obstructing pristine vistas, impacting wildlife and undermining tourism-related income and property values.
The Socorro County Commission also voted unanimously in September to oppose the project for similar reasons.
Western Spirit is the second major renewable energy transmission line to face such rural opposition, following major local pushback in recent years against the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a separate, 520-mile line that another company is developing to carry three gigawatts of wind energy from central New Mexico to Arizona. That line would cross the Rio Grande in between wildlife refuges for migrating birds, generating even stronger opposition than the Western Spirit project from wildlife conservation groups.
Unlike SunZia, however, which must still navigate significant regulatory hurdles, Western Spirit has received all the federal and state permits it needs to move forward, including approval from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission for Public Service Company of New Mexico to acquire and operate the line after its built. But project developers must still negotiate right-of-way agreements with local landowners in Valencia and Socorro counties to allow the line to cross their lands, and some are holding out.
That and other public concerns, such as the Western Spirit line’s possible interference with activity at the Belen Regional Airport, encouraged the Valencia County Commission to oppose the project in January, despite having little chance of stopping it.
“We don’t really see any options that county commissioners can pursue to stop it,” said Valencia County Manager Danny Monette. “But commissioners wanted to be on the record that they stand with county residents who oppose the project. We want to make sure our citizens’ voices are heard.”
Total project a $1.5B investment
The Renewable Energy Transmission Authority has been working since 2010 to construct the Western Spirit line. RETA is a quasi-governmental entity the Legislature created in 2007 to help finance and build transmission systems to carry wind-generated electricity from central and eastern New Mexico. It owns the rights to the Western Spirit project.
Pattern, which will construct the line, is a global wind developer. It already operates 550 MW of wind farms near Clovis that now supply renewable electricity to utilities in California and other Western states.
The company says Western Spirit and the associated wind energy it’s developing represent a nearly $1.5 billion investment, including about $360 million for the transmission line and more than $1 billion for the wind farms. Together, those projects will generate tens of millions in tax revenue, landowner lease payments and salaries, said Johnny Casana, Pattern’s senior manager for U.S. political and regulatory affairs.
“Western Spirit and up to 1,000 MW of associated new wind facilities will create hundreds of construction jobs available to residents of Valencia and surrounding counties,” Casana told the Journal. “Once operational, there will be more than 150 long-term jobs to keep the wind turbines maintained in good working order for decades to come.”
Pattern is also the anchor tenant for the SunZia line. It’s planning nearly a dozen more wind facilities near Corona to supply 2.2 GW of electricity for transport through SunZia to Western markets.
Plenty of wind, nowhere to go
RETA Executive Director Fernando Martínez said Western Spirit and projects like SunZia are needed to open up the vast wind energy potential in central and eastern New Mexico.
“Without the transmission, our renewable energy remains stranded,” Martínez said.
More transmission is critical to grow the state’s budding renewable energy industry. But PNM also needs the infrastructure, not just to accommodate wind developers who export electricity to other states, but for the utility to meet mandates under New Mexico’s new Energy Transition Act, which requires it to derive all electricity from renewables and carbon-free resources by 2045.
PNM’s current transmission is too congested to add more wind from the eastern plains, said PNM Vice President for New Mexico Operations Todd Fridley.
Some fear damage to rural quality of life
But Valencia County officials and residents say Western Spirit’s developers have ignored their concerns.
Local landowners in and around Bosque, where Western Spirit will cross the Rio Grande, have organized in opposition to the project. The group, led by local women whose families live alongside or near the river, has launched a neighborhood petition with about 100 signatures. They’ve met with government officials and Pattern representatives and have attended public meetings to oppose Western Spirit.
Romy Baca, whose siblings and other family members live on about 20 acres of land near the river that their late father divided among them, said the transmission line will lower property values and quality of life.
“These are huge towers that will cut right through the area where we’ve lived all our lives,” Baca said. “It will destroy the natural beauty.”
Stephanie McCleary and Vickie Husbands, two more landowners whose families grow alfalfa on the east and west sides of the river, said they both have small air strips that will be rendered useless by the transmission line.
“It will be like putting a brick wall at the end of the runway,” Husbands said. “The line will run about 1,500 feet from the end of the landing strip. You can’t go around it, and if you mis-approach, there’s no margin for error.”
McCleary said the line won’t cross her property directly, but will cross the river about 500 yards south of her family’s north-south landing strip.
“It will interfere with the safety of the airstrip,” McCleary said. “It’s right in the glide path. It will be extremely dangerous.”
The women say they and their neighbors also have health concerns about constant electromagnetic radiation from the transmission line. And they’re concerned about potential effects on migratory birds at the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex south of Bosque.
Most impacted locals have signed off on line
RETA says only a minority of landowners and local officials oppose the line. The project will impact 340 tracts of land in three counties. It begins at PNM’s existing main line near Clines Corners in Torrance County. From there, it runs south toward Corona, then west to the Rio Grande, and finally back north again to PNM’s Pajarito substation west of Albuquerque.
The developers have reached agreements with about 91% of affected landowners, including 301 of the 333 located in Valencia County, Martínez said.
Opponents say many landowners have granted rights of way because they fear RETA could exercise its power of eminent domain. But Martínez said RETA has not used that authority, and would only consider it as a “last resort” if all other efforts fail.
“With so many tracts of land, it’s not an easy task to get everyone in agreement,” Martínez said. “But to have reached agreement with 91%, we feel good about that.”