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Published on May 28th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


$2 Billion SunZia Solar-Wind Project Gets Green Light From White Sands

May 28th, 2014 by  

A proposed $2 billion, 500-mile proposed wind and solar power transmission line called SunZia has gotten stalled out over the White Sands missile range in New Mexico, but the Defense Department has come up with a solution: go under. The idea, according to a note from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, is to bury three sections of the line that would otherwise have adverse impacts on the operation of the range.

While we’re waiting for word back from SunZia as to whether or not that’s feasible, let’s take a closer look at this transformative project, which could do for the wind industry in Arizona and New Mexico what the massive CREZ transmission line has done for the wind industry in Texas.

White Sands Missile Range

White Sands Missile Range

The SunZia Transmission Line

While not exclusively for sun and wind power transmission, the SunZia project is expected to spark more activity in renewable the energy sector for New Mexico and Arizona. Both states have gotten off to a running start in solar power but have been stymied by an out-of-date regional grid.

As anticipated by the Obama Administration back in 2011, the transmission/grid modernization is also expected to create jobs and spark new economic development in the region.

For a taste of things to come, take a look at the aforementioned $7 billion CREZ (Competitive Renewable Energy Zone) project in Texas. The state has already established leadership cred in wind power generation, and CREZ sparked a new rush of wind development that has been toppling records.

Expected to be in service in 2018 (if all goes well over and under White Sands), the SunZia project will send two bi-directional extra-high voltage electric transmission lines with a total capacity of 3,000 MW, from Arizona and New Mexico to markets across the Desert Southwest region.

So, What’s The Problem?

Since the line crosses federal lands, including the White Sands missile range, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is the lead agency on environmental compliance, hence the notes between the Pentagon and the Interior Department. [correction/clarification: according to a note we received from Copper State Consulting, the proposed route goes through an area related to range activities, about 30 miles north of the range itself]

According to an AP report, when the project was first proposed, the concern was that exposed lines running for 45 miles across the area would cut testing operations at the range by up to 30 percent.

The solution proposed by Hagel involves burying three separate sections of the line, totaling five of the 45 miles, along with additional mitigation measures.

Hagel also asked for a guarantee that DoD (aka, us taxpayers) would not be financially responsible for  any damage to the line.

Who’s Who At SunZia

The list of companies sponsoring SunZia includes Tuscon Electric Power, which indicates that despite concerns about the utility sector recently expressed by Barclays strategists, some players are reacting more nimbly than others to the changing face of electricity generation and transmission in the US.

The others are the longstanding (as in, since 1903) public hydroelectric utility Salt River Project, the gas-fired power plant specialists SouthWestern Power Group II, the multi-state wholesale power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which serves and is owned by 44 regional electric cooperatives, and Shell WindEnergy.

Yes, that Shell. As with utilities, some global energy companies are proving more nimble than others. CleanTecnica reported on an interesting conversation about that with a Shell spokesperson last fall, right around the time that the company was making a fast exit from the shale gas market in Texas (unlike Exxon, which has doubled down).


Last time we checked, Shell was involved in two wind projects in Europe and eight in North America, for a total of about 500 MW.

For the record, we’re not thrilled (to say the least), by the gas-fired power plant angle, although the emergence of hybrid gas-solar power plants demonstrates a more sustainable strategy for using fossil fuels until they are replaced entirely by renewables.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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