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Clean Power New Mexico wind energy SunZia

Published on January 26th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Wind Beats Keystone XL In Race For Federal Approval

January 26th, 2015 by  

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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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+.

  • JamesWimberley

    Both SunZia and CREZ are using horrible old-fashioned lattice pylons designed in the 1930s. This really is unfit for the 21st century.

    • wildisreal

      Ugly indeed and totally disrespectful of wide-open viewsheds.

  • sjc_1

    The four cellulose ethanol plants built in Kansas and Iowa created more jobs than the KXL ever will. Just keep building transmission lines and cellulose plants, these are assets we need that will not cause harm.

  • This is kind of apples and oranges. Keystone XL is cross border issue that needs federal approval. There’s been so many approved and fast-tracked pipeline projects over the past six years it’s mind blowing. Also, Keystone XL is complete between the Gulf and Cushing, OK. And of course, as environmentalists were freaking about Keystone XL, Enbridge built a pipeline from Flanagan, IL to Cushing. This doglegs Alberta oil sands bitumen around Keystone XL northern half. Basically, Illinois is becoming tar sands and shale oil junction. There’s so much tar sands flowing through illinois its crazy. About enough is flowing for our needs and then some.

    Also the jobs numbers on pipelines is kind of stupid. A pipeline job about the size of Keystone XL will produce the labor equivalent of about 15,000 to 20,000 construction jobs and a number of jobs associated with construction. The NGO based number around 1900 is bogus. Transcanada jobs number 42,000 is high. Here’s the backup data for pipeline construction jobs, it’s completed jobs in the US over the past decade.


    Environmentalists are getting dogpiled on bad analysis. This doesn’t help. A transmission line for windpower is super awesome on its own. Permitting success stands on its own.

    • sjc_1

      The KXL would put an aquifer that provides water to eight states at risk, it would put farmland that feeds the nation and the world at risk. This risk is real and once the aquifer water is contaminated it is ruined forever, all to make the rich even richer while the tar sands fuel goes out of the country.

      • The Ogallala aquifer has a bigger problem than potential pipeline spills – it’s being mined. Mining an aquifer is when the amount extracted exceeds the amount replenished. That’s bad.

        Here’s a map of a number of sites that may or may not have impacted the Ogallala aquifer from the go-go western expansion until now. This doesn’t include buried tanks leaking at gas stations and other oil and gas facilities. Just things like superfund sites. There’s actually a superfund site call Ogallala.

        To get to the mapping application, start at EPA region 7.

    • RobMF

      Whether we know it or not, we are all environmentalists now.

      • Almost all the tar sands goes to the PADD II refineries in the Midwest and a chunk goes to PADD III refineries in the Gulf. Some is going to Seattle. The rest stays in Canada. There’s about 2.0 million barrels per day flowing now. The US went through major refinery modifications over the past 10 years to take more heavy crude. This is for both Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy crude. Basically all that Canadian tar sands are doing is replacing Venezuelan crude. Both reserves are the largest in the world. We, by the way are refining Canadian tar sands and exporting it to the world. This is value added and with crude being so cheap – this type of fossil fuel exporting may increase.

        This is all pretty much happened during the fight for Keystone XL – which is almost pointless at this point given crude prices. I don’t hear a lot of concern for Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and the other Midwestern States.

        • RobMF

          Oh, that pipeline would increase flows by 850 K barrels per day. So, yes, we’ve managed to strand a significant portion of that nasty oil and reduce economic viability for the dangerous fuels. Any minor victories that you note above are symbolic as North American unconventional fossil fuels is now facing recession.

          In all, I have to marvel at this massive malinvestment. The US will be energy independent soon enough due to leadership in EV technology, solar, and efficiencies. The dinosaur industries you mention here are failing en mass. And they should!

      • timbuck93

        Yep, once solar power gets to be a “standard” item for houses, people won’t even blink an eye!

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