New Mexico’s burgeoning renewable energy sector could supply thousands of volts of electricity to western urban markets in California and Arizona.
To do this, the state will need the infrastructure to transport electricity from southeastern New Mexico wind and solar facilities 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 New Mexico’s wind and solar power market as production increases amid a statewide push to decarbonize its energy sectors.
On April 29, the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement for the SunZia project, opening a 60-day public comment period until July 28.
Public meetings were also to be scheduled this year, according to a BLM press release, to solicit more comments on the project.
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Here’s what we know about the latest proposal form and how new Mexicans can participate in the process.
Why is the SunZia project necessary?
New Mexico’s renewable energy sector is growing rapidly, as Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, since taking office in 2019, has sought to increase the state’s renewable energy portfolio.
This meant that several large-scale wind and solar projects were being built across the state, and utility providers like Xcel Energy committed to fully decarbonizing their operations in the years and decades to come.
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New Mexico State Land Office records showed there were 16 active leases for wind energy 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 additional 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 from New Mexico to larger urban markets in Arizona and California.
Where will the transmission lines begin and where will they end?
SunZia’s route begins at a substation in Torrance County where electricity is sent by wind turbines and solar panels, then travels through Lincoln, Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties in New Mexico.
It crosses Arizona and passes 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 export.
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What changes are proposed to the project?
There are four components of SunZia’s route that have been proposed for modification by the BLM, avoiding environmental impacts and interactions with other federal or state lands.
It was proposed to modify the rights of way to avoid difficulties in accessing private lands in the area, adding about 4.7 miles to the length of the lines.
The BLM also requested to add a right-of-way for approximately 844 miles of access roads throughout the project, with 804 miles permanent and approximately 40 miles of temporary roads.
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There would also be 1,402 acres of additional temporary work areas to support line construction.
Another proposed adjustment was to move the trajectory of the lines around the northern call area of White Sands Missile Range.
This area is not a permanent section of the missile range, but the federal government can “call in” the field to restrict access when needed for testing or other operations.
This change would also allow SunZia to operate in parallel with the West Spirit Transmission Project, a 345 kilovolt transmission project for wind generation projects and bring the Torrance County East Substation closer to other wind projects.
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Going around White Sands would add about 92 miles to the project.
It has also been proposed to use the West Substation in Arizona to convert power from direct current to alternating current so that it can be used to power homes and businesses.
This would require one of SunZia’s two lines to be AC and the other either DC or AC.
The direct line would require additional equipment to convert to alternating current at each of the project endpoints.
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How to participate in the decision-making process?
The BLM has published its draft environmental impact statement for the SunZia project in the Federal Register, which gives people the opportunity to submit comments online through the register.
During the 90-day comment period, the BLM said it would schedule three public meetings for additional discussions.
Comments can also be submitted on the BLM website at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2011785/510.
Comments posted are addressed to SunZia Comment Period, Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico State Office
301 Dinosaur Trail, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87508.
There is also a direct line for verbal feedback at 1-888-959-2510.