Developers of a $2 billion transmission project aimed at getting renewable energy from New Mexico and Arizona to large markets in the American Southwest are looking to clear one more regulatory hurdle as they seek state permission for the massive project.
SunZia quietly submitted its application in March for approval of locations and right of way widths for the massive power lines, triggering a public hearing process that began Wednesday before the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in Santa Fe. Over the next five days, numerous consultants and concerned ranchers will be testifying.
The project has been years in the making and not without controversy as disputes initially rose over its proximity to a U.S. military installation and environmentalists raised concerns about effects on wildlife.
It took federal land managers years to review the project's potential effects on everything — from the rural desert landscape the lines would cross to historical resources scattered throughout several counties in the southern half of the state. White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and officials at New Mexico's spaceport also weighed in.
In Arizona, regulators gave their approval for the lines in 2015 following more than a dozen public hearings.
The proposed transmission lines would cross about 520 miles (836 kilometers) of state, federal and private land in the two states.
Developers said in their application submitted to the New Mexico commission that they expect final approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to proceed with construction later this year and that a right of way permit from the New Mexico State Land Office is expected soon.
SunZia also is pursuing easement agreements with more than 80 private landowners in New Mexico.
Darr Shannon, a Hidalgo County rancher whose family has raised cattle in the area for nearly 130 years, is among those concerned about the erosion of private property rights as a result of the siting of the transmission lines, which will include numerous lattice steel towers that will stretch about 135 feet (41 meters) into the air.
Other ranchers are concerned about damage that will be caused by burying portions of the lines in certain areas and whether condemnation would be required if they can't reach agreements with SunZia.
In testimony submitted to the commission, Shannon suggested the only benefit of the project is getting power to Arizona or California and that her family will "do whatever we can to protect our land from this powerline of destruction."
The proposed SunZia system is one of dozens of transmission projects being planned across the United States as utilities aim for more resilient electricity grids and flexible infrastructure to accommodate shifts in resources and customer demands.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. investor-owned electric companies that are represented by the industry association invested more than $20 billion in transmission infrastructure in 2016. They are expected to put another $90 billion into transmission through 2020.
In New Mexico, SunZia supporters contend there's potential for thousands of construction jobs and millions of dollars in lease payments and related tax revenue that could boost government coffers.