Activists seek to reroute a 33-mile section of a transmission project that would run through the San Pedro River Valley. The valley is an important north-south migratory bird flyway, and its riparian habitat is key to protecting several threatened and endangered species, they say.
Enriqueta Flores-Guevara and Lon Brehmer/Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance
Pattern Energy's 3-GW HVDC SunZia transmission line will deliver power from the company’s 3.5-GW SunZia wind farms in central New Mexico. The wind resources are expected to relieve demand pressure by offering emissions-free generation that typically accelerates as solar energy declines in the late afternoon and evening.
A 550-mile transmission line that promises to deliver central New Mexico wind resources to load centers in Arizona and California appears to be nearing the permitting finish line, but an Arizona lawsuit challenging a 45-mile segment of the route might present a final hurdle for the project.
Pattern Energy's SunZia Southwest Transmission Project has been in the works for 16 years and received a final environmental impact statement and resource management plan from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's New Mexico State Office in February. Pattern anticipates final approval from BLM in the form of a record of decision by mid-May, after which it plans to begin construction along the project's path.
The company is also building the 3.5-GW SunZia Wind project in New Mexico, the output of which is fully allocated to the line. Pattern expects both projects to come on line in the first half of 2026.
However, Peter Else, chair of the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, in a complaint filed Jan. 24 to Arizona Superior Court in Maricopa County seeks to reverse earlier decisions of the Arizona Corporation Commission that approved the line's route through the San Pedro River Valley [CV2023-050310].
Else in December sought reconsideration and rehearing of the ACC's November decision accepting the recommendation of the agency's Power Plant and Transmission Line Siting Committee to accept amendments to the project's previous approval from 2016 [L-00000YY-15-0318-00171 Decision No. 78769] (California Energy Markets No. 1719). Else took the matter to court after the ACC declined to respond to his request within the statutory timeline.
According to Else, 45 miles of the SunZia line's route threatens the ecosystem of the San Pedro River, which the Audubon Society says is "the last major undammed river in the American Southwest." The San Pedro watershed provides habitat for numerous animal species, including several that are listed as endangered, such as the monarch butterfly and southwestern willow flycatcher.
"If it happens, it will become the poster child for poor land-use planning," Else said in a phone conversation with California Energy Markets. Federal goals seek to site transmission projects along existing rights of way and to co-locate linear transmission as much as possible to minimize their impact to ecologically sensitive areas, Else said.
"Not only is this project routed through the worst possible place in Arizona, it also runs through a national wildlife refuge in New Mexico," he said, referring to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
The line was rerouted in New Mexico to minimize interference with activities of the White Sands Missile Range in that state and also to mitigate impacts to a migratory bird route where the line crosses the Rio Grande (California Energy Markets No. 1591).
The Audubon Society estimates that nearly 45 percent of North America's 900 bird species use the San Pedro corridor at some point in their lives.
Pattern officials are confident that their plans for the line will prevail. Kevin Wetzel, assistant vice president of business development for Pattern, in a phone interview said the company has been working collaboratively with BLM and that the route has been studied very thoroughly. "People want to see the route completed," he said, adding that Else appealed the ACC's original approval of the line in 2016, which was later upheld.
The November amendments to the 2016 approval regard updating the structure design, extending the construction timeline to 2028 to provide a buffer, and separating the 3-GW direct-current SunZia line from the 1.5-GW alternating-current El Rio Sol transmission line. The AC line remains under development by SouthWestern Power Group, which began developing both lines in 2006. Pattern and SWPG agreed to bifurcate the project for efficiency and financing purposes after realizing the complexity of joint ownership issues during Pattern's completion of the Western Spirit Line in New Mexico, Wetzel said (California Energy Markets No. 1671).
El Rio Sol is expected to go on line around 2030, but Else said it would largely be redundant to the fully permitted Southline Transmission Project, which will run from southern New Mexico near El Paso, Texas, to Tucson and is expected to be fully on line by 2027.
One Arizona alternative for SunZia would have routed the line through Tucson, necessitating the destruction of lower-income homes and creating environmental-justice concerns; another was opposed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department because it interfered with a grassland-restoration project in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Both were rejected by BLM, according to Else's legal complaint.
The intervenor wants to reopen the entire route rather than focus on the amendments that were approved in November, Wetzel said. "We are working collaboratively with ACC staff as an intervenor in the [legal] case and feel confident about the environmental compatibility of the route," he said.
Pattern in an April 3 news release said that an independent study by Energy and Environmental Economics calculates the anticipated economic and fiscal impact of the SunZia transmission and wind projects at more than $20 billion, which includes more than $16 billion in capital and operational expenditures and payments to private landowners in both states. The projects will generate an expected $1.3 billion in fiscal impacts to governments, communities and schools through sales and use taxes, property taxes, community-benefit payments and land payments to federal and state agencies, according to the release. The study anticipates the projects will create more than 2,000 new jobs during construction.
"SunZia demonstrates that working toward a sustainable future can also create meaningful economic value and a lasting positive impact on local communities," Pattern CEO Hunter Armistead said in the release. Economic development directors in both New Mexico and Arizona in the release praised the projects for bringing stable jobs to the region.
Else in his complaint is asking that economic benefits of the project and other considerations—including climate change and environmental-justice concerns—be excluded as criteria for approving the project because they lie outside the scope of Arizona statute.
Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.
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