Transmitting wind and solar power to the places that need it most

King Mountain Wind Ranch in Texas. Photo by NREL- Cielo Wind Power

The SunZia line can help us meet our energy and climate goals

New Mexico and Arizona are ripe with renewable energy resources that could be tapped to aid the growing energy needs across the west. As new sources of power come online, the challenge we all face is how we transmit that power to the places that need it most. The Wilderness Society is continuing our work on the proposed SunZia transmission line in southern New Mexico and Arizona, and we recently submitted additional comments and recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer solutions for some concerns. If properly sited to avoid impacts to sensitive wildlife habitat, wildlands, and the Rio Grande River corridor, the SunZia line could help meet our energy and climate goals by providing transmission needed to move energy from wind and solar projects in New Mexico and Arizona.

Bosque del Apache. Photo by Joe Davenport.The BLM held public meetings and took comments during its first round of “scoping” last summer and fall, when the agency asked for recommendations on what issues should be considered in development of their environmental reviews for the project. As a result of the work of TWS staff, our partners and Wild Alert activists, and others engaged in the process, the BLM has formally expanded the area where they are looking for routes in both New Mexico and Arizona. BLM will now begin developing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that provides detailed analysis of all routes under consideration. We expect publication of the Draft EIS sometime this winter, when the public will be provided another opportunity to comment.

Our goal is to help BLM find a route that allows access to renewable energy resources in Arizona and New Mexico without unacceptable impacts along the way. This is clearly a very challenging task, but we’re working hard in the hope that with the help of our partners we will find a way. We are also trying to ensure that SunZia, a long line across two states, makes sense. Because this issue is key to our engagement in both this project and other part of our renewable energy efforts, the considerations, while complex, are well worth understanding.

  1. New transmission is needed to access our renewable energy resources. While The Wilderness Society supports localized generation and use of renewable energy wherever possible, long lines like SunZia make sense in certain cases, too. The best wind and solar are often far from cities that need the power, and these areas often do not have existing transmission lines. The existing lines we do have in our aged and over-taxed grid are mostly full, so it makes sense that new lines will be needed in some places.
  2. Renewable energy development is tied to state requirements for renewable energy use. Because we are not paying the true price of our dirty fossil fuels addiction, the economics of renewable electricity generation and sale are currently driven by state-mandated “Renewable Portfolio Standards,” or RPS, that require states to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources by a certain date. For Arizona, California and New Mexico, those requirements are 15% by 2025, 33% by 2020 and 20% by 2020, respectively.
  3. New Mexico utilities can’t use all the wind the state can generate — Many states’ RPS require a diversity of renewable sources, including wind, solar, geothermal and other sources. In New Mexico, these requirements mean that most utilities in currently have excess wind, so they will have to purchase more solar, geothermal and other renewables — and not more wind — to comply with the RPS. For these reasons, additional development of New Mexico’s fantastic wind resources (and thus further steps towards our clean energy future) requires that New Mexico’s wind reach markets in other states, namely the large electricity markets in Arizona and California.
  4. Moving New Mexico’s wind along the SunZia route makes sense. Why not send New Mexico’s wind to neighboring Texas or Oklahoma? Currently our country’s energy grid is split up into three “interconnections”, one for the west, one for the east, and a separate one just for Texas. These interconnections are not well connected to one another, and unless new infrastructure is built to allow such transfers, large amounts of electricity cannot be passed between them.

Why would Arizona buy New Mexico’s wind instead of developing its own wind and solar? Arizona is developing its own wind and solar, but the large cities there require lots of electricity, and it can be more economical for Arizona to buy some of New Mexico’s excellent wind and sell some of its own excellent solar to neighboring California, which has the largest cities and the greatest demand for renewable energy with its aggressive RPS of 33% by 2020.

These are complicated issues, which makes it all the more important that The Wilderness Society and our conservation partners engage with local communities, renewable energy developers, agency staff and elected officials to identify solutions that meet our clean energy needs while protecting the lands we care so deeply about. Our engagement on SunZia and other renewable energy and transmission projects and policy will remain focused on those goals. The BLM is still taking comments on SunZia, so if you’d like to get more information or submit a comment, please visit their website.

King Mountain Wind Ranch in Texas. Photo by NREL- Cielo Wind Power.
Bosque del Apache. Photo by Joe Davenport.