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While the Keystone XL pipeline still flounders around in the federal approval process, a massive new clean energy transmission line gets the thumbs-up.

Clean Power

Wind Beats Keystone XL In Race For Federal Approval

While the Keystone XL pipeline still flounders around in the federal approval process, a massive new clean energy transmission line gets the thumbs-up.

A massive new 515-mile wind energy transmission line is in the works for Arizona and New Mexico, and the so-named SunZia Southwest Transmission Project just reached the finish line of its federal environmental review last week. The permitting process began back in 2009 and it ended with a “Record of Decision” from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which effectively greenlights the project pending state approvals.

Like the notorious Keystone XL pipeline, SunZia faced some daunting obstacles, including objections from the Department of Defense. However, there is one critical difference that enabled SunZia to proceed while Keystone continues to flail.

New Mexico wind energy SunZia

New Mexico wind energy resources courtesy of SunZia.

SunZia And Southwestern Renewable Energy

To be clear, the new transmission line could carry any old kind of electricity, but SunZia makes it clear that the focus will be on the ample wind and solar resources of Arizona and New Mexico.

The anchor tenant, announced back in 2013, will be wind giant First Wind. The company is — obviously — best known for its wind energy investments, but it has also been flexing its solar muscles in a big way.

Just last summer, First Wind announced a massive 320 megawatt solar buy in Utah, following on the heels of somewhat smaller solar projects in Utah and Massachusetts.

Leaping Over Obstacles To Renewable Energy Transmission

So, about the critical difference that enabled SunZia to succeed while Keystone is failing.


If you’re thinking that SunZia’s estimate of 6,200 temporary construction jobs over a four year span handily beats out the State Department’s estimate of 3,900 over two years for Keystone (estimates vary wildly but we’ll go with 3,900), that would not be it.

If you’re thinking that SunZia would also help stimulate hundreds of new permanent jobs through improved access to renewable energy (check out Texas’s new CREZ wind transmission line for a comparison), making Keystone’s 50 or so permanent jobs a weak tea indeed, that still would not be it.

SunZia is a US energy project that will directly benefit US energy consumers, unlike the Keystone XL project, which is intended to funnel Canadian tar sands oil to the global market — but that still isn’t the critical difference.

The difference is that transmission lines can be buried without the kind of environmental risks that are posed by oil pipelines.

The obstacle faced by SunZia is that the planned route of the transmission line passes fairly close to the Department of Defense’s famed White Sands missile range, close enough to potentially crimp some operations at the facility.

However, last spring DoD gave the thumbs-up to SunZia, on condition that the developer bury several sections of the line and make other adjustments to mitigate potential impacts on the range.

So, there you have it. Among other objections, Keystone opponents have pointed out — endlessly — that pipelines do break, and the consequences can be devastating. That factor is not operational for transmission lines.

The next step is for SunZia to get approvals from New Mexico and Arizona agencies.

Things are already looking up in New Mexico, where late last year the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority formally declared that it would sponsor the project.

We’re also optimistic about approvals in Arizona, which has solidly cemented its renewable energy cred thanks to high profile projects like Agua Caliente, as well as surprisingly strong support from former Republican Governor Jan Brewer.

Public support for renewable energy and environmental conservation runs high in Arizona, and current Republican Governor Doug Ducey seems inclined to follow that path as well, so stay tuned.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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