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On the SunZia transmission project and carbon tunnel vision
This May the Biden Administration gave the final go-ahead for the SunZia transmission line, which is designed to carry power from wind facilities in New Mexico to a major grid hub in the Phoenix area. The approval — which came after 17 years of review — is being hailed as a major win for clean energy because it will enable the Southwest grid’s dastardly solar “duck curve” to be tamed by wind power, not dirty natural gas generation.
The National Audubon Society also considers SunZia a case study for designing and siting clean energy infrastructure in a way that does the least harm to birds and other wildlife. It seems at first glance like a win-win situation. And in some ways and places it is. But there’s at least one loser here, and that’s the San Pedro River valley in southern Arizona, which will be traversed by the line. Now the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Archaeology Southwest are standing up for the cultural and natural landscape of the valley by disputing the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental review and approval of the project.
SunZia was first proposed nearly two decades ago by the Southwest Power Group to carry electricity generated at its proposed natural gas plant in Bowie, Arizona, to the Phoenix area where it could tie into lines continuing westward. When the gas plant plan languished, developers saw opportunities further to the east, in windy central New Mexico, where a lack of transmission capacity has left potential wind farms “stranded.” They expanded the SunZia proposal to enable the development of New Mexico wind that could be sold to Arizona or California utilities (Salt River Project, which serves most of metro Phoenix, was an investor in the line). This shift garnered the support of clean energy boosters like Western Resource Advocates and helped get the Obama administration’s support and final approval in 2015.
But it still had to get the go-ahead from the states. New Mexico regulators hesitated because of strong opposition from conservationists due to the proposed route’s potential impact on migratory birds. Also, the line would cross a portion of the White Sands Missile Range, making the Pentagon “uncomfortable.” So, in 2020, SunZia said it would reopen the NEPA process in order to reroute the line around wildlife refuges and the missile range, and it tracked migratory bird paths to determine where the line could cross the Rio Grande with the least impact. That alleviated most concerns — and gained the blessings of Southwest Audubon. New Mexico gave its approval clearing the way for the feds to do the same.
Unfortunately, the process didn’t work as well in Arizona. There, sovereign Indigenous nations and conservation groups have attempted to get SunZia to reroute the line away from the fragile, biodiverse San Pedro River, because it would endanger birds and other wildlife and potentially damage culturally significant sites. But that didn’t seem to faze Arizona regulators, who tend to be more amenable to such projects and less responsive to environmental concerns than their New Mexican counterparts, and they unanimously approved the project. That removed any incentive for SunZia to reroute the line in Arizona as it had done in New Mexico. The BLM’s preferred route remained alongside the San Pedro River, despite protests from the tribal nations and conservationists.
The BLM issued its final decision this spring, which included the contested San Pedro River route. That sparked the dispute accusing the BLM of failing to properly address the project’s impacts to historic properties and failing to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with the tribes.
Audubon Southwest acknowledged the shortcomings in the process and the routing problem, but maintained their support because they felt the developer’s plan to mitigate impacts by, say, altering the placement and height of towers or using helicopters to avoid building new roads, is sufficient to minimize habitat loss or fragmentation. Besides, they say, climate change is a bigger threat to birds and people and the San Pedro River than a transmission line.
It’s clear that averting more calamitous effects of climate change will require cleaning up the power grid, even as it expands to accommodate more people and more electric cars, appliances, and other gadgets. It won’t be easy. The grid is a huge machine that was built up over the last seven decades to move power from giant coal-fired plants and enormous hydropower dams to faraway cities and states. Since then, the way we use and generate electricity has evolved dramatically, and it will need to continue to change in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. This must include small-scale, distributed generation and energy storage and microgrids. We can and should blanket every warehouse, big-box store, parking lot, irrigation canal and home with solar panels. And, perhaps more importantly, we as a society need to learn to become more energy-efficient, using less power even as we electrify everything.
Even that won’t be enough, however. Utility-scale wind and solar installations will also be necessary, as will the long-distance transmission lines needed to carry the energy they generate, such as TransWest Express (which is under construction and will carry wind power from Wyoming to the California grid) and SunZia. These are massive undertakings, and undoubtedly will affect the natural and cultural landscapes, views, habitats, and wildlife.
As Audubon’s recent Birds and Transmission report points out, there are ways to build these projects while also minimizing the impacts. Doing so requires collaborating with and, more importantly, listening to stakeholders and their concerns. And it requires flexibility on the agencies’ and developers’ part. More than that, it requires avoiding “carbon tunnel vision” and a tendency to forget about on-the-ground impacts when focusing solely on tackling climate change.
It appears that in the SunZia case, both the BLM and the developers were afflicted with this tunnel vision and were unable to see the harm the project would inflict on the San Pedro River and the people who consider it sacred. In his protest letter to the BLM, San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler wrote:
“This Valley … one of the ‘Last Great Places’ in America, is the fragile core for the largest expanse of unfragmented land in the Southwest, an area that includes the southern half of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. At least as importantly, the Valley is the home to more than 60 landforms named and remembered in our Apache language. The Valley also hosts thousands of localities having religious, cultural, historical, and archaeological importance to Apache, O’odham, Hopi, and Zuni peoples.”
Does that sound like the place you’d want massive transmission towers and high-voltage lines slashing through — even with a great mitigation package? Probably not. What’s most aggravating is that there was a reasonable alternative route: along the I-10 and Highway 70 corridor. The biggest impact there would have been to motorists’ views.
🌞Speaking of energy development along highways: A clean energy think tank found that installing solar panels in state-owned highway rights-of-way in just three California counties could generate enough electricity to power about 270,000 homes. So just imagine how much electricity could be generated if we lined all of the highways in the Southwest with solar? And think about the impacts to wildlands and fragile desert that could be avoided.
Who knows what/where this is?