In a long-awaited development, the Bureau of Land Management last week announced a Record of Decision for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, allowing for the designation of a 400-foot-wide right-of-way through the BLM right-of-way avoidance area.

This paves the way for renewable developer Pattern Energy to conceivably break ground within a few months on what could be the largest wind development project in the Western Hemisphere, with high-voltage transmission lines spanning 550 miles from central New Mexico to south central Arizona, and massive wind farms spread across three New Mexico counties to produce up to 3.5 gigawatts of clean power.

The transmission line will originate at a substation in central Torrance County and terminate at an existing substation in Pinal County, Arizona,

The project has been more than 17 years in the making, following lengthy and sometimes contentious government permitting processes at the local, state and federal levels.

The adjusted SunZia transmission route.
Graphic by Pattern Energy

The route of the transmission line has had to be adjusted many times in order to accommodate private lands, White Sands Missile Range, and migratory bird patterns associated with Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups have also lobbied against the project over concerns about what construction will do to the historically untouched land.

Locally, the Socorro County Commission passed a resolution in June 2022 approving the request of SunZia Transmission LLC to use certain roads in Socorro County. The resolution recognizes that the additional volume of traffic on the county roads may result in repairs, improvements and associated expenses to the county and that SunZia be responsible for repairing any damage done as a result of its usage.

“The construction, operation and maintenance of the transmission lines will require access to, ingress and egress to and from, and crossings of county-owned right-of-way and county-held right-of-way easements,” the resolution states, and gives SunZia and its contractors the right to use the county roads to transport “structures, materials, construction equipment and supplies related to the construction of the transmission lines, and, if necessary, to improve same and to cross over the county roads with the conductors and cables of the transmission lines”

In short, SunZia will be responsible for reshaping, repairing, and modification of the county roads that must be performed resulting from road usage that is more than the usual and customary maintenance operations performed as routine maintenance by the county.

In Socorro County, SunZia is looking to run the transmission lines between Socorro and Magdalena behind M Mountain and Strawberry Peak, up to the county line with Valencia County and east into Torrance County.

In a related development, at its Tuesday meeting, the Socorro City Council approved an agreement granting SunZia the right to relocate the city’s natural gas pipeline in the Bernardo area for a fee of $225,000 fee to be paid to the city.

The agreement states that “SunZia shall be solely responsible for all costs and expenses related to the removal and relocation of the pipeline.”

According to the BLM press release, the SunZia project represents a milestone in the government’s goal of a 100 percent clean electricity grid by 2035.

“The Department of the Interior is committed to expanding clean energy development to address climate change, enhance America’s energy security, and provide for good-paying union jobs,” said Laura Daniel-Davis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “Through robust engagement with states, cities and Tribes, we are proud of the part we play in the all-of-government efforts to diversify the nation’s renewable energy portfolio while at the same time combatting climate change and investing in communities.”

The SunZia project consists of two electric transmission lines spanning parts of New Mexico and Arizona. When completed, the 520-mile transmission project will provide an opportunity to deliver up to 4,500 MW of renewable energy from New Mexico and Arizona.

Pattern Energy will invest about $8 billion in the project. This includes 900 new wind turbines in Lincoln, Torrance and San Miguel counties spanning about 600,000 acres of private and state trust lands, which Pattern states could generate some $1 billion in direct economic benefits over time for private landowners, local communities, and state government through taxes, land-use payments, support from local businesses and employment.