470-Mile Connection Would Help Deliver Wind, Solar and Geothermal to Market

 
The New Mexican

 
A 470-mile transmission line across Southern New Mexico and Arizona is planned for tapping into the state’s renewable-energy promise and exporting the power to big markets.

The proposed Sun Zia line will cross primarily state trust land and BLM land in Southern New Mexico, providing an expected 3,000 megawatts of new electricity transmission capacity.

Details of the transmission line were among a plethora of energy issues land commissioners from 18 Western states turned out to hear about this week at Inn at Loretto in Santa Fe.

Tom Wray, project manager for Southwestern Power Group and the Sun Zia project, said the line will provide regional access for energy from planned wind, solar and geothermal projects in both states. Sun Zia was planned by a consortium of developers, utilities and states called the Southwest Area Transmission Group, with the goal of getting renewable energy to market.

“Sun Zia will substantially change and improve the renewable-energy transmission across the Western states,” Wray said. “Sun Zia wouldn’t be developed … were it not for the belief that the West has a strong and lasting appetite for renewable energy.”

Wray said the project is undergoing an environmental-impact study required of projects crossing federal land. The project could be built as early as 2013 as a joint project of Southwestern Power Group, the Salt River Project, Tucson Electric Power, Energy Capital Partners and ShellWind Energy.

Sun Zia will consist of two 500 kilovolt AC lines that will connect to the underlying extra-high-voltage grid and provide places for renewable-energy power plants to tie in. It will cost about $1.2 million to $1.5 million a mile to build the lines, not including the cost of substations, Wray said. “It gets up into the billions of dollars for two separate lines,” he said.

Wray said a DC line option is under study and could increase the power transmission. Plans call for a new substation called SunZiaE near Ancho, N.M., with the lines running east of Truth or Consequences, south to Luna and then west near Interstate 10 into Arizona.

Wray said the Sun Zia team is working closely with environmentalists to site the transmission line, and public meetings will be held in 10 counties impacted by the project to solicit public opinion. “We’re going to see opposition to overhead lines,” Wray said. “No one wants a transmission line in their backyard, no matter what is transmitted.”

Sun Zia “is a heck of a project if it gets implemented,” said Brian Bingham, director of the State Land Office’s renewable-energy division.

Lack of transmission capacity is a major stumbling block to many proposed renewable-energy projects. Renewable-energy developers need access to lines in close proximity to keep their electricity costs competitive on the market with other power producers.

Wray, Bingham and other state energy experts believe New Mexico can become a net renewable-energy exporter, generating a new source of revenue for the state. New Mexico’s current energy use is about two gigawatts per year, compared to California’s 18 gigawatts. “California is ready to buy everything,” Bingham said.

State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons said he created a renewable-energy division last year to promote state trust land leases and easements for solar and wind projects. The state trust lands also are leased for oil and gas exploration, with revenues going to public schools.

The electricity demands across the nation are expected to grow, even with energy-efficiency measures, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Sun Zia is only one major power line proposed across New Mexico. The other is the 1,250-mile High Plains Express Transmission plan, which would expand regional transmission capacity across Wyoming, Colorado, Eastern New Mexico and into Arizona through several interconnected high-voltage line projects.

But more than a dozen environment and conservation organizations oppose the High Plains Express line because electricity from coal-fired power plants would be allowed.