SunZia Southwest Transmission Project nears regulatory finish line

After 14 years, the SunZia transmission project is nearing the regulatory finish line

An overlook of the Rio Grande Valley near Lemitar, N.M., not far from where the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project line is planned to be built. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is edging closer to a targeted 2023 start date following new state-level approvals in Arizona and New Mexico, and with a final U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision on the project expected in April.

If all the regulatory stars align, renewable developer Pattern Energy could break ground next summer on potentially the largest wind development project in the Western Hemisphere, with high-voltage transmission lines spanning 550 miles from central New Mexico to south-central Arizona, and massive wind farms spread across three New Mexico counties to produce up to 3.5 gigawatts of clean power.

The project has been more than 14 years in the making, following lengthy and contentious government permitting processes at the local, state and federal levels. But, last week, the Arizona Corporation Commission gave its final approval for SunZia to move forward, ending all needed state-level regulatory processes there for the project. And, in October, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission approved location-control and right-of-way width permits for Pattern to connect most of its planned wind farms to the grid, the second such needed approval from the PRC since May.

The PRC must vote once more on final location and width permits to fully cover all of Pattern’s SunZia-connected wind farms, likely in early 2023, said Pattern’s New Mexico project development director, Jeremy Turner. A few final local permits are still needed in Arizona and New Mexico, among them special-use-district approval in Torrance County.

But, after that, the BLM’s final “Decision of Record” will be the only pending regulatory hurdle, and that process, too, appears to be gliding along on schedule for completion in April.

“The BLM decision is the primary thing we’re waiting on now,” Turner told the Journal. “The BLM has done a fantastic job of running the process and managing the timeline. It’s working through an administrative draft of its environmental impact statement now, which will hopefully result in a timely decision early next year.”

Likewise, executives from New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, or RETA, say BLM action is “running smoothly.” RETA became a partner in the SunZia project last year, turning it into a public-private co-development effort.

“It’s going well,” RETA Executive Director Fernando Martinez told the Journal. “RETA is really encouraged and happy about the progress with the wind farms and the transmission lines. It’s getting us that much closer to construction in 2023. It’s happening.”

$8B investment

Pattern acquired the rights in July for one of SunZia’s two planned transmission lines from the Southwestern Power Group, which has worked since 2008 to develop the project, targeting a potential total of 4.5 GW of transmission capacity.

Southwestern will construct a 1.5-gigawatt alternating current, or AC, line, leaving Pattern to build a direct current, or DC, line capable of moving up to 3 GW of clean electricity for sale in western markets.

Pattern will invest about $8 billion in the project, including 3.5 GW of new wind turbines in Lincoln, Torrance and San Miguel counties spanning about 600,000 acres of private and state trust lands, Turner said. That could generate some $1 billion in direct economic benefits over time for private landowners, local communities and state government through taxes, land-use payments, support from local businesses and employment, according to Pattern.

Pattern will employ about 2,000 construction workers on the project – to be completed by end-2025 if work begins on schedule next year – and then 150 permanent employees.

At 3.5 GW – enough power to meet the needs of some 3 million people – Pattern’s plans will make SunZia bigger than the Hoover Dam or the nuclear Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, said Pattern spokesman Matt Dallas.

“It’s a bigger investment than what was spent on One World Trade Center in New York City,” Dallas told the Journal.

Environmental impact

Pattern is working with conservation groups, who fear the transmission – which crosses the Rio Grande south of Belen – could be lethal to wintering flocks of sandhill cranes and other birds that may fly into the line, to reduce potential wildlife impacts.

Pattern will deploy near-ultraviolet illumination devices, plus bird flight diverters that spin in the wind and reflect light, along sensitive areas to scare birds away. It’s also financing wildlife conservation studies and buying up targeted lots of land to convert into avian safe havens in both New Mexico and Arizona.

Conservationists hoped to get the line buried at the Rio Grande crossing, but the BLM declined to consider that, said Sandra Noll of Protect Our Rio Grande.

“If you don’t underground the wires, the ultraviolet devices are the next-best technology,” Noll told the Journal.

But research and intervention will be needed as SunZia takes off to confirm mitigation and maintain the diverters, which may be damaged by New Mexico’s gusty winds.

“We’ll need provisions to study the impacts and repair the devices going forward,” Noll said.

_outtake”>The BLM has done a fantastic job of running the process and managing the timeline … which will hopefully result in a timely decision early next year.” – Jeremy Turner, Pattern New Mexico project development director

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