Major transmission line inches closer to service

BySusan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Federal government is one step closer to approving a proposed $2 billion electric transmission line between Arizona and New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The federal government is one step closer to approving a proposed $2 billion electric transmission line between Arizona and New Mexico that has become a priority for the Obama administration.

The Bureau of Land Management this week released its environmental assessment of a compromise reached with the U.S. Defense Department over the 515-mile-long line's location.

The review found there would be no significant effects from burying a portion of the line to avoid interfering with operations at White Sands Missile Range. Officials were initially concerned the high-voltage line could reduce testing operations at the remote range and ultimately threaten national security.

Disagreement over the transmission line's route landed the project in limbo last year. A series of letters followed from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, members of New Mexico's congressional delegation and the heads of the U.S. Defense and Interior departments.

"None of these big rights of way projects are easy or of short duration, but this one has been especially difficult with the military issues as well as the river crossings and so forth," said BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel. "We're beginning to see the potential for light at the end of the tunnel."

SunZia is one of seven pilot projects the Obama administration has put on a fast track in hopes of boosting renewable energy development mainly across the West. The projects cover a dozen states and span thousands of miles, from Wyoming to Oregon and south to Nevada, and from central New Mexico to southern Arizona.

The electric grid in the U.S. is made up of more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage lines. Experts have said the nation's aging systems have to be upgraded and more transmission and distribution will be necessary as populations and demand grow. Some have pegged the needed investment in transmission lines, electric substations and other infrastructure at $1.9 trillion over the next decade.

"We do need to build out the electrical transmission system in the West," said Ian Calkins, a spokesman for the SunZia project. "If you compare it, you see maps of the system on the East Coast and they're more built out and complex. In the West, it's pretty thin."

But some environmentalists question whether changes to the management and regulation of the existing grid could put off the need for more transmission lines.

"With SunZia we have our concerns, but we have our priorities too," Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians said about his group's push for more renewable energy.

The SunZia project aims to tap into stranded wind resources in central and western New Mexico as well pockets of solar and geothermal potential in New Mexico and Arizona. The line will export the generated electricity to larger markets in the West.

The public has 30 days to comment on the BLM's findings. If further environmental review is unwarranted, the agency can move forward with a final decision.

SunZia would then have to get permits from the state and finalize its financing before construction can begin. Calkins said developers are hoping to have the transmission line operating in 2018.

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