The Western Spirit Transmission trunkline is now fully operational in the US state of New Mexico, a key step forward in co-developer Pattern Energy’s plan to eventually have more than 4GW of wind capacity available within the state and for export to western markets.
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The 155-mile (249 km), 345kV line helps link four Pattern wind projects that together total over 1GW of capacity in central New Mexico scheduled for completion by year-end with the electric grid managed by utility Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) out of a control-base near Albuquerque.
The additional wind power will reduce use of coal and natural gas, as well as withdrawal of 850 million gallons per year of water from lakes and rivers used to cool thermal power plants.
“This is the biggest transmission upgrade to the PNM system since the 1980s and is increasing grid reliability by harnessing New Mexico’s natural resources,” said Robert Busch, chairman of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA), a state authority that partnered with Pattern on the project.
PNM will acquire the line after final commissioning this month. It has 800MW carrying capacity.
Aside from those four wind projects and two others in operation totalling 545MW, Pattern has another cluster with almost 2.9GW capacity in development in the state for export to other western states.
In 2016, Pattern was selected as the anchor tenant and awarded 1.5GW capacity in an open solicitation process by SunZia Southwest Transmission, which has an up-to-4.5GW merchant project consisting of two 550-mile bi-directional, extra-high-voltage power lines.
SunZia will deliver primarily new wind and solar energy on a route from central and southwestern New Mexico and south-eastern Arizona to load serving entities in Arizona, California, and Nevada.
SunZia has been in development for more than a decade, a typical timeframe for merchant transmission projects that face running a gauntlet of sometimes duplicative approval processes, often suffering lack of timely coordination between agencies at both the state and federal levels and strident opposition from some communities, environmentalists, and private landowners.
Most projects fold or are sold with their backers unwilling to tie up capital for that long as they confront legal and permitting challenges.
Joe Biden is the third consecutive president after Barack Obama and Donald Trump vowing to push through federal permitting and regulatory reforms that would facilitate development and modernisation of the country’s energy and transportation infrastructure.
The new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs law sets a federal goal of approving large infrastructure projects within two years, increases funding for federal agencies responsible for permitting decisions, and grants greater authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve siting of a transmission project if deemed in the national interest.
Several other initiatives in the law may also help transmission. One is additional criteria for designating so-called National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors including improved energy security and connection of facilities generating or transmitting firm or intermittent energy to the grid.
Another is a $2.5bn revolving fund for the Department of Energy to act as an “anchor tenant” for new or expanded transmission. DoE would be allowed to buy a portion of up to 50% of capacity and then sell it back when the line is financially viable.
SunZia investors now forecast the project will achieve commercial operation in 2025 with construction starting in 2023. It has been issued a right-of-way grant by the Bureau of Land Management for the portions of the project located on federal land, but still lacks all acquisitions of land rights from owners of private land within the project route.