New Mexico counties, rural residents fight transmission line

  • Feb 23, 2020
  • Hardin County News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Officials in Two New Mexico counties and rural residents are standing up against a proposed transmission line that would connect the potential for more wind farms with markets in other western states.

The five-member Valencia County Commission voted unanimously in January to oppose the Western Spirit Transmission Line. The commissioners were backed by landowners and residents who fears the project's huge towers and miles of high-voltage lines will spoil their rural quality of life by obstructing pristine vistas, impacting wildlife and undermining tourism-related income and property values.

The Socorro County Commission also voted unanimously in September to oppose the project for similar reasons.

The state’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority and Pattern Development are jointly building the 150=mile (241.40 kilometers) line. Expected to be operating next year, it will carry more than 800 megawatts of electricity from wind farms — still under construction by Pattern in central New Mexico — for sale in western states.

Western Spirit is the second major transmission line to face such opposition, following pushback against the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project. That 520-miles(837 kilometers) line being developed by another company would carry three gigawatts of wind energy from central New Mexico to Arizona, crossing between wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande.

SunZia must still navigate significant regulatory hurdles, but Western Spirit has received the federal and state permits it needs. Still, developers must negotiate right-of-way agreements with local landowners in Valencia and Socorro counties, and some are holding out.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that some critics are worried about possible interference with activity at the Belen Regional Airport.

“We don’t really see any options that county commissioners can pursue to stop it,” said Valencia County Manager Danny Monette. “But commissioners wanted to be on the record that they stand with county residents who oppose the project. We want to make sure our citizens’ voices are heard.”

The Renewable Energy Transmission Authority has been working since 2010 to construct the Western Spirit line. RETA owns the rights to the project.

Pattern will construct the line, A global wind developer, Pattern already operates 550 MW of wind farms near Clovis that supply utilities in California and elsewhere.

The company says Western Spirit and the associated wind energy it’s developing represent a nearly $1.5 billion investment, including about $360 million for the transmission line. The company predicts tens of millions in tax revenue, landowner lease payments and salaries.

Pattern is also the anchor tenant for the SunZia line. It’s planning nearly a dozen more wind farms near Corona to supply 2.2 GW of electricity to western markets through SunZia.

RETA Executive Director Fernando Martínez said Western Spirit and projects like SunZia are needed to open up the wind energy potential in central and eastern New Mexico.

“Without the transmission, our renewable energy remains stranded,” Martínez said.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico, the state's largest electric provider, also would benefit. The utility needs the infrastructure, not just to accommodate wind developers who export electricity to other states, but for the utility to meet mandates under the state's Energy Transition Act, which requires all electricity to be derived from carbon-free resources by 2045.

PNM says its current transmission is too congested to add more wind from the eastern plains.

Landowners in and around Bosque, where Western Spirit will cross the Rio Grande, have organized in opposition to Western Spirit. The group, led by women whose families live alongside or near the river, launched a neighborhood petition and have met with government officials and Pattern representatives.

The project will impact 340 tracts of land in three counties. It begins at PNM’s existing main line near Clines Corners in Torrance County. From there, it runs south toward Corona, then west to the Rio Grande, and finally back north again to PNM’s substation west of Albuquerque.

The developers have reached agreements with most landowners, Martínez said.

Opponents say many landowners have granted rights of way because they fear RETA could exercise its power of eminent domain. Martínez said RETA would only consider that as a last resort.

“With so many tracts of land, it’s not an easy task to get everyone in agreement,” Martínez said. “But to have reached agreement with 91%, we feel good about that.”

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