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Bringing everybody on board

Dear Friend,

America’s demand for clean, reliable, and affordable energy is growing. If we want to meet the full scale of this opportunity, we need to go further and faster in building the transmission lines that will deliver cleanly generated electrons to our homes and businesses. Projects like the recently approved SunZia Transmission and Wind Project will also deliver transformative economic benefits to rural communities.

I am working hard to pass transmission permitting reform legislation that would establish simpler, coordinated agency reviews and incentivize early, meaningful local stakeholder engagement. This is how we will bring everybody on board in our transition to a clean energy future.

I hope you can take a moment to read and share the recent Albuquerque Journal story below about why this is so important.

This is our opportunity to create good-paying jobs, meet our ambitious and urgent climate goals, and deliver affordable and reliable electricity to all Americans. We need to get the job done.


United States Senator

Transmission Traffic Jam Threatens Clean Energy Transition

By Kevin Robinson-Avila

June 18, 2023

Pattern Energy is preparing to break ground in New Mexico on what could become the largest wind generation and transmission-line project in the Western Hemisphere when it comes online in 2026.

The company will invest about $8 billion to get its SunZia wind and transmission development system up and running, creating a massive array of wind turbines in Central New Mexico and a new, 550-mile, high-voltage transmission line that will run from the Corona area in Lincoln County to South Central Arizona. The project will carry up to 3,000 megawatts of renewable electricity to customers in California and other western markets — enough clean power to meet the energy needs of some 3 million people.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management officially greenlighted SunZia’s development on May 18, marking a huge milestone in efforts to free up the massive wind-generating potential of New Mexico’s gusty eastern plains as the state and nation scramble to transition to a clean-energy economy. But it took 15 years to get final federal approval for SunZia, which developers first began pursuing in 2008.

The permitting and regulatory process got bogged down in yearslong disputes over its potential environmental impacts, and over U.S. Department of Defense concerns about interference with military operations at White Sands Missile Range. Developers changed many of their initial plans to accommodate those concerns, but that added years to the project timeline.

SunZia’s final approval drew broad praise from clean energy development advocates, including New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, who spearheaded efforts to unlock regulatory bottlenecks at the federal level.

That lengthy regulatory battle was “worth the fight” given SunZia’s huge benefits, Heinrich said following BLM approval in May. But it provides a critical wake-up call as the state and nation pursue tens of thousands of miles of more transmission lines considered essential for the clean-energy transition going forward.

“The permitting should never have taken this long,” Heinrich said in a statement. “We need to build out more transmission lines and bring more large-scale clean energy and storage projects onto the grid, and those must move more quickly. It’s critical that we pass transmission permitting reform.”

To do that, Heinrich introduced two new bills in the U.S. Senate in late May and early June that could grease the regulatory wheels to allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to fast-track approval processes for newly-authorized “National Interest Electric Transmission Facilities.” Another bill would also offer a new, 30% tax credit to help get high-priority projects developed.

“America’s demand for clean, reliable, and affordable energy is growing,” Heinrich said. “If we want to meet the full scale of this opportunity, we need to go further and faster. That does not mean greenlighting every project. It just means getting to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in less than a decade — not a decade and a half.”

The amount of new transmission needed to support the clean-energy transition is monumental.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s latest triennial study of national transmission requirements, released in draft form in February, projects the need for an overall 57% increase in countrywide transmission infrastructure by 2035. That’s critical to support massive development of new clean energy resources over the next decade, and to meet growing consumer demand as the nation works to supplant combustion-based fossil fuels with renewable electricity to power up everything from homes and buildings to carbon-free vehicles.

It’s also critical for grid resiliency in the face of severe weather events and natural disasters linked to climate change, such as extreme heat waves and wildfires. A lot more interregional transmission is required to rapidly send power where it’s needed among states to offset electric shortages as they arise.

Needs vary by region, ranging from a 33% increase in transmission required in the Southwest region by 2035 to nearly a 90% increase in Mountain states, according to the DOE study.

“Today’s grid cannot adequately support 21st Century challenges — including the integration of new clean energy sources and growing transportation and building electrification — while remaining resilient in the face of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change,” said the DOE’s Grid Reliability Office. “The power grid is the backbone of the nation’s electricity system, and it must adapt to maintain reliability and resiliency.”

In New Mexico alone, between 900 and 1,300 miles of new transmission lines are needed by 2030, said Fernando Martinez, executive director of New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, or RETA — a quasi-government agency established by the state Legislature in 2007 to help expedite transmission development.

But to date only one major project — the Western Spirit transmission line — has actually been built.

SunZia developer Pattern Energy constructed Western Spirit, which came online in late 2021 along with 1,050 MW of new wind generation in Central New Mexico, supplying enough clean energy to power some 365,000 homes. The line, now owned and operated by Public Service Co. of New Mexico, transports renewable electricity 155 miles to a PNM substation on Albuquerque’s west side, where it then moves over existing transmission infrastructure for sale to California customers.

Western Spirit, however, took more than a decade to get built, reflecting many of the same regulatory hurdles faced by SunZia.

“We’re working now with private partners on more large transmission lines with lots of renewable development, but the biggest obstacle is getting permission to build them,” Martinez told the Journal. “Most lines cross over state, federal, tribal and private lands, and there are requirements every step along the way to get approval.”

Western Spirit doesn’t cross any federal land, but needed local and state approval still bogged the process down for years.

“Western Spirit took ten years and didn’t even include the level of federal permitting SunZia went through,” Martinez said. “… There are 38 different statutes and regulations at the state level, from environmental impact and air quality control to protection of cultural sites. And then there’s local and county requirements to deal with.”

All parties involved in transmission development have learned from both Western Spirit and SunZia how to better navigate regulatory hurdles going forward, which could lead to faster, smoother permitting for at least three more large transmission projects now at different stages of development in New Mexico. That includes:

  • RioSol, a 550-mile, high-voltage line that will run parallel to SunZia from Central New Mexico to Arizona, transporting up to 1.5 gigawatts of electricity for use by local consumers and customers in western states. RioSol was originally part of the SunZia project until Pattern Energy acquired rights to the 3 GW SunZia line that it’s now developing independently.
  • New Mexico North Path, a 400-mile line to transport 4 GW of renewable electricity from new clean projects planned in northeastern Union County to Farmington for consumption in both New Mexico and the West.
  • The Mora Line, a 114-mile transmission project to carry 182 MW of new clean electricity from Union County to a PNM substation south of Las Vegas, with all the power dedicated for local consumption.

RETA has signed partnership agreements with the developers on all three of those projects, helping to guide them through the regulatory process based on RETA’s previous experience working with Pattern Energy on both Western Spirit and SunZia.

As a quasi-government agency, RETA can facilitate permitting for developers on a “government-to-government” basis when meeting with local, state and federal agencies, helping private developers more efficiently navigate the regulatory process in a more timely manner, Martinez said.

In fact, under the public-private partnership agreements with developers, RETA is technically the owner of the three transmission projects, at least until they’re fully constructed and the developers take over commercial operations. That creates significant tax benefits during planning and construction, such as exemption from gross receipts taxes and from some property and compensating taxes.

RETA also has eminent domain authority to acquire private property for public use if necessary. But it’s never used that authority to date and only considers it a “last resort” if right-of-way negotiations with landowners reach an impasse, Martinez said.

One of the biggest lessons learned from Western Spirit and SunZia is the need to aggressively reach out to all local communities and government agencies early in the planning process to address concerns and build grassroots support for projects. And that’s now the primary focus on North Path development.

“We’re conducting early stakeholder engagement through community meetings and public forums in all the counties across the line’s trajectory to get buy-in and avoid issues before we actually apply for regulatory permission on a ‘preferred route’ for the project,” Martinez said. “The goal is to forge community partnerships along the way, which is proving to be much more effective in how we get projects permitted.”

Private developers have taken those lessons to heart.

Will Consuegra, transmission development director for North Path developer Invenergy Transmission, said he’s constantly driving from community to community for meetings all along the planned line’s 400-mile route.

“I’m focused on that outreach, talking with communities from Clayton to Farmington to develop an on-the-ground understanding of what we need to do to move the project forward,” Consuegra told the Journal. “…It’s a purposeful approach at every level to discuss issues and concerns with all parties, including private land owners, tribes, state agencies and community organizations. We want to develop a supportive ecosystem with different audiences across the board to develop a groundswell of support before we approach the feds for regulatory approvals.”

Those efforts can significantly smooth the federal process when RETA and developers seek permits, although it’s not a “fool-proof” system, Martinez said.

“We’re talking several hundred miles of transmission, so you’ll never get 100% buy-in for all of that, but we can get pretty close,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, government efforts to streamline permitting processes are gaining traction, following approval in 2015 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST Act, to more efficiently coordinate regulatory reviews among agencies.

FAST established a permitting “steering council” with more than a dozen federal agencies to usher permit applications through regulatory scrutiny. A comprehensive “dashboard” tracks progress at every level, with firm deadlines and agency obligation to explain things when deadlines are missed, said John Ryan, head of RioSol’s New Mexico operations.

“The FAST Act holds agencies accountable to meet timelines,” Ryan told the Journal. “…If they don’t meet the dashboard timeframe, they have to explain why, and if it’s not justified, developers can talk to higher-level executives at agencies to address and resolve the issue.”

That’s helped expedite regulatory approval, Martinez said.

“Developers need a predictable regulatory landscape,” he said. “They need to know if they do everything right, they will get permission to do things in a certain timeframe.”

Sen. Heinrich is now building on FAST Act progress to enact deeper permitting reforms. He introduced two bills since May to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, more authority to resolve issues and speed development.

That includes an Interregional Transmission Planning Improvement Act for FERC to oversee a new process for allocating development costs on multi-state transmission projects that equitably reflects the benefits among states. Currently, there is no formal cost-allocation method, which leads to “food fights” that bog projects down, Heinrich said.

“The bill directs FERC to be the ‘cop on the beat’ to measure individual state benefits and determine who should be on the hook for what portion of development costs,” Heinrich told the Journal.

The second bill — Facilitating America’s Siting of Transmission and Electric Reliability, or FASTER Act — gives FERC siting authority as the lead agency for critical interregional projects known as National Interest Electric Facilities. And it requires FERC to approve or deny a permitting application within five years.

Perhaps more important, the bill incentivizes communities, developers and project sponsors to negotiate an enforceable “community benefit agreement,” or CBA, to ensure greater grassroots engagement at all levels.

It would streamline the application process for CBA participants to access the DOE’s $760 million Transmission Siting and Economic Development Grant program, with $532 million of those funds allocated for initiatives in communities most impacted by projects, plus $228 million to help finance state and county transmission siting activities. It also creates a new income-sharing arrangement for transmission easement payments on federal lands, with 50% of income going to counties and states.

“Revenue sharing with counties is an important way of getting community buy-in,” Heinrich told the Journal. “… We need more communities to see the economic development and job-creation potential of transmission and clean-energy projects in New Mexico and elsewhere. New Mexico, in particular, is in a unique position to help facilitate the energy transition by exporting clean electrons and importing jobs and revenue, and we’re poised to take advantage of that.”