Permits, siting, are top challenges for transmission developers

transmission march elp 4

Obtaining permits for electric transmission projects “is the single hardest thing to do,” according to David Getts, general manager of SouthWestern Power Group, a wholly owned unit of MMR Group, which is developing the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project.

“[I]n general, the longer the project, the more linear distance, the more problems [you will have,] the more people you’re going to affect [and] the more NEPA challenges you’ll find,” he said on June 29 during the “Large Transmission Projects in the West” panel as part of TransmissionHub’s TransForum West event, which was held in Denver.

As noted in Getts’ presentation, the 515-mile, 500-kV SunZia project has an estimated capital cost of $2bn. A record of decision was issued by the Bureau of Land Management in January 2015 for the project, which earned a “WECC 3-phase rating of 3,000 MW (East to West, 2 x AC),” and received an Arizona state permit in February, the presentation noted.

“We started the permitting for this project in 2008,” Getts said, adding, “It took us seven years to get through our NEPA action, which, I think by the standards of large, kind of, interstate transmission projects in the West, is not too bad.”

Getts also said: “We do not anticipate becoming part of an RTO or a cost recovery project through the California ISO, [and] we have not applied through the WestConnect process yet and we do not intend to apply through WestConnect as either a regional or an interregional project …. [W]e’re a merchant, or I like to say, independent, transmission project, that will rise or fall based on [the] economics and demand for the product.”

As noted in his presentation, key permits for the project are in hand, as is federal right of way (ROW) for 185 miles (36 percent) of the project. The company has also started to obtain ROW in Arizona and New Mexico (state trust and private), and its renewed anchor tenant process is underway to replace SunEdison, which has filed for bankruptcy.

Noting that the company hopes to finish its commercial arrangements and remaining development activities in the next two years, he said that the current target for project construction to begin is mid-2018.

The company’s “goal is to start operation by the end of 2020,” he added.

Getts noted that the project was one of the pilot projects chosen as part of the Obama administration’s Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission.

“We appreciated the support, but I can tell you, it was neither rapid nor responsive,” he said. “Having said that, it was an exercise, frankly, by the Obama administration to learn and educate 50 to 100 individuals in various agencies about how they could work together to help us solve some problems. So, my hope is that that effort and the other … projects that went through it, did provide benefit … in general, going forward. We’ll wait and see.”

While Arizona’s state siting process can be challenging, “it’s a lot easier than NEPA,” he said.

Among other things, he noted that while FERC Order 1000 is “a very valuable order,” he is “not convinced that it will enable any independent transmission to really get built.”

Discussing the cost allocation portion of that order, he said, “[W]e’re trying to figure out how to be more efficient and cost recovery is ultimately what gets things built, so we’ll see.”

Also speaking on the panel was William Bojorquez, vice president, Hunt Power, L.P., who discussed the Verde Transmission Project and the Southline Transmission Project.

As noted on Hunt Power’s website, the Verde project involves building about 30 miles of 345-kV transmission line that would interconnect the existing Public Service Co. of New Mexico (PNM) Ojo substation in southern Rio Arriba County to the existing PNM Norton substation in Santa Fe County, N.M. The project is intended to complete a critical transmission loop in the Northern New Mexico transmission system, the company said, adding that the project would strengthen import and export capabilities system-wide, help relieve congestion, strengthen the reliability of the existing electrical system, and improve transmission access for local renewable and other energy sources.

Bojorquez said of the project, “We predict we can get this in service in [the] 2018/19 timeframe.”

As noted on its website, the Southline project, which is comprised of two sections, would interconnect with up to 14 existing substation locations and may include development of a new substation in Luna County, N.M.

The New Build Section would involve building about 240 miles of new 345- kV double-circuit electric transmission lines in New Mexico and Arizona, and would provide a capacity of up to 1,000 MW, according to the website. The New Build is defined by end points of the existing Afton substation, south of Las Cruces, N.M., and the existing Apache substation, south of Willcox, Ariz. That section, the website added, includes an about 30-mile segment between Hwy 9 and I-10, which would enable potential access to the renewable resource areas of southern New Mexico, and a five-mile loop between the Afton substation and the existing Luna–Diablo 345-kV transmission line.

The Upgrade Section would consist of double-circuit 230-kV lines connecting the Apache substation to the existing Saguaro substation northwest of Tucson, Ariz., the website said. The Upgrade Section would rebuild about 120 miles of existing single-circuit 115-kV transmission lines, currently owned by the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), providing up to 1,000 MW of transmission capacity between those substations. A new, about two-mile line segment would be required to interconnect with the existing Tucson Electric Power Vail substation, located just north of the existing WAPA line, the website added.

Bojorquez said of the project: “We have received the record of decision for this project, just this year, a couple of months ago.”

As noted in his presentation, the project received FERC authorization to begin the open solicitation process in 2015. Also that year, the final environmental impact statement for the project was published, and the project was granted “WECC Phase 3 Path Rating.”

The first construction phase is expected to be completed in 2018, with initial operations beginning that year. The project is expected to be fully built in the 2019-2020 timeframe, his presentation added.

The presentation also addressed the project’s opportunities for potential customers. For local (Southwest) utilities, for instance, benefits involving capacity going from East-to-West include access to high-quality renewable resources, while benefits involving capacity going from West-to-East include access to energy markets. For generation developers and owners, the benefit involving capacity going from East-to-West is delivering low-cost renewables to high-value markets, while the benefit involving capacity going from West-to-East is access to transmission-constrained customers. The New Build Segment of the project would increase the limited transmission connections between the southern New Mexico/El Paso area and the rest of the western U.S. transmission grid, the presentation added.

Among other things, Bojorquez noted that the “number one challenge” is the long process involving designing, permitting and siting of the project, which involves multi-state coordination.

Fellow panelist, Mitch Colburn, engineering leader – 500-kV and Joint Projects, Idaho Power, discussed the Boardman to Hemingway and Gateway West transmission projects.

The Boardman to Hemingway project, he said, is an about 300-mile, 500-kV project that runs from northeastern Oregon to southern Idaho. As noted in his presentation, the project has about 1,000 MW of bi-directional capacity, and about 30 percent of the project is on federal land. Efforts on the project began in 2008 and a final EIS is expected this year. The project is expected to be in service in 2022 or later, the presentation added.

The “BLM schedule calls for a record of decision in December,” Colburn said. “We are hopeful, but not optimistic that that milestone” will occur at that time.

The BLM recently came out with an administrative final EIS, “so they’re making progress towards a final EIS,” he said.

The line is being built “to serve our future demand – in essence, [we are] trying to avoid building a carbon-emitting plant,” Colburn said.

As noted in his presentation, the project’s total cost is about $1bn to $1.2bn. Idaho Power has a 21 percent partnership interest in the project, while PacifiCorp has 55 percent, and the Bonneville Power Administration has 24 percent, according to his presentation.

The project was chosen as part of the Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission, Colburn said, noting of that effort, “It’s hard to say that it’s expedited the schedule process. I do think there has been benefit in the awareness at the federal level of the projects and the dialogue that goes on there.”

Of the Gateway West Project, Colburn noted that it involves about 1,000-miles of 500-kV and 230-kV transmission lines. As noted in his presentation, the project lead is Rocky Mountain Power (PacifiCorp), with Idaho Power having an 11 percent interest in the overall project. The Gateway West Project was also chosen as part of the Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission.

The project, like the Boardman to Hemingway project, started in 2008, with a record of decision issued in 2013 on eight of the 10 segments, he added.

As noted in his presentation, a record of decision on the remaining segments is expected in late 2016, and the project is expected to be in service in the 2019-2024 timeframe.

Challenges have included routing and permitting process matters, he said.

Community involvement is key, he said, adding that when the company kicked off the project efforts in 2008, “we quickly realized that we weren’t going to get anywhere without community input,” and the company had public meetings.

Among other things, he said that having reasonable routing alternatives is beneficial.

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