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3 Takeaways From Our SunZia Investigation

Why power lines are harder to build than pipelines

The Pattern Energy logo and wind power.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Library of Congress

How hard is it to build big clean-energy infrastructure in America? Look at SunZia.

When completed, the more-than-500-mile power line is meant to ferry electricity from a massive new wind farm in New Mexico to the booming power markets of Arizona and California. When finally built, SunZia will be the largest renewable project in the United States, if not the Western Hemisphere.

But as I detail in a recent investigation for Heatmap, it has taken too long — much too long — to build. Nearly two decades have elapsed since a project developer first asked the federal government for permission to build SunZia.

Since it was first proposed, SunZia has endured seemingly endless environmental studies and lawsuits. It has been bought, sold, and bargained over. The end result is that a project first conceived in 2006 — which was expected to operate in 2013 — is now due to open in 2026.

That is a massive problem, because confronting climate change will require the country to build dozens of new long-distance power lines like SunZia. If the United States wants to meet its Paris Agreement goal by 2050, then it will have to triple the size of its power grid in just 26 years, according to Princeton’s Net Zero America study. (That research was led by Jesse Jenkins, who co-hosts Heatmap’s “Shift Key” podcast with me.)

The country is not on track to meet that goal. My story on SunZia set out to determine why.

Here are three major takeaways from my investigation:

1. Transmission projects face more obstacles than fossil fuel projects — even in the eyes of self-described environmentalists.

At a fundamental level, a power line and a natural gas pipeline aren’t so different: Both move a large amount of energy over a long distance.

Yet it is much easier to build a natural gas pipeline than a transmission line, and they face very different regulatory hurdles in America. When a company proposes a new transmission line, it must get permission from every state whose borders it plans to cross. This can result in an arduous, years-long process of application, study, and approval.

That same obstacle does not hinder gas developers. When a company proposes a new natural gas pipeline, it can get many of its permits handled by a single federal agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is a one-stop shop for gas pipeline developers, organizing and granting state-level permits through a streamlined process.

(To be sure, natural gas pipelines sometimes need permits from other federal agencies — such as the Bureau of Land Management — before they can begin construction. But transmission developers need to getpermits from those other federal agencies, too.)

But not all of the obstacles are regulatory. Transmission and renewable projects simply look different than pipelines, which can make environmentalists and the public more skeptical of them. Even though pipelines can leak or spill, they can be buried or built closer to the ground than power lines, and therefore pose less of a visual disturbance to the landscape.

In recent years, much of the controversy around SunZia has focused on the San Pedro Valley, a gorgeous desert landscape northeast of Tucson, Arizona. SunZia must pass through the valley to connect to a power station near Phoenix.

Two Native American tribes — the Tohono O'odham Nation and the San Carlos Apache Tribe — sued to block SunZia last year. They argue that the valley has cultural value and must be preserved intact and undiminished.

But the valley is already home to a large natural gas pipeline, mostly — but not entirely — buried underground. (The pipeline is on pylons near Redington, Arizona, where it crosses the San Pedro River.)

In an interview, a leader at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that joined the tribes’ lawsuit, said that SunZia’s proposed power line is problematic in part because it will be so tall.

“There are no 200-foot large power lines going through the San Pedro Valley,” Robin Silver, the leader, told me. “The gas pipeline doesn’t have 200 foot towers.”

If environmentalists focus on a project’s visual prominence, then pipelines will virtually always win out over transmission lines.

A federal judge dismissed the tribes’ lawsuit last month. A representative of the Tohono O'odham Nation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

2. A better relationship between conservationists and clean energy developers is possible.

In permitting debates, conservationists and clean energy developers can often become enemies. Traditional conservationists seek to slow down the permitting process as much as possible and move a project away from a treasured or sensitive area, while developers and climate hawks want to build clean energy infrastructure quickly and efficiently.

These fights often play out as costly lawsuits over the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970 law that requires the government to study the environmental impact of every decision that it makes. Advocates and opponents wind up battling in court over whether or not a project’s environmental impact has been sufficiently studied.

That’s not what happened with SunZia. Some environmentalists and traditional conservation groups, such as the Audubon Society, now praise SunZia’s process.

It wasn’t always that way. During the early 2010s, SunZia’s proposal to cross the Rio Grande in New Mexico was just as controversial as its San Pedro Valley route. The project’s developer wanted to build power lines near a site where tens of thousands of migratory birds, including sandhill cranes, spend the winter.

That changed after the Defense Department forced a major rethink of the line in 2018. Soon after that, Pattern Energy, a San Francisco-based energy developer, took over the project.

Pattern took a different approach than its predecessor and partnered with environmental groups to learn how it could build the power line in the least intrusive way.

It conducted original research on how sandhill cranes fly, and — based on that research — moved the power line to the place where it would interfere with birds the least. It also purchased and donated an old farm property and the accompanying water rights so a wildlife refuge could rebuild habitat for the birds.

Pattern also agreed to illuminate the transmission line with an experimental infrared system to make it more visible to birds.

These changes, which also allowed Pattern to avoid a Defense Department site, were so extensive that it had to apply for a new federal permit.

“Pattern being a company that was willing to have discussions with us in good faith — and that conversation happening before the re-permitting process — was, I think, really important,” Jon Hayes, a wildlife biologist and the executive director of Audubon Southwest, told me.

3. But someone has to facilitate it.

This collaborative relationship was possible in part because it was facilitated by Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who represents New Mexico.

Heinrich, a climate hawk and the son of a utility worker, had long championed the SunZia project. So when the project ran into obstacles, he pushed the developer, environmentalists, and the Pentagon to negotiate over a better solution. His office remained deeply involved in the process throughout the 2010s, ultimately helping to broker an agreement over the Rio Grande that all parties supported.

“I firmly believe that when we work together, we can build big things in this country,” Heinrich told me in a statement.

Silver, the Center for Biological Diversity leader, told me that Heinrich’s involvement is the principal reason why SunZia has been praised in New Mexico but criticized in Arizona.

The Grand Canyon State doesn’t have elected officials who were willing to get involved in SunZia and push for a mutually beneficial solution, he said. (For much of the 2010s, Republicans held both of the state’s Senate seats.)

But a project’s ultimate success cannot rest on the quality or curiosity of its senators. Martin Heinrich, as a climate solution, doesn’t scale, and not every clean energy project will have a federal chaperone.

What’s more, America’s existing permitting system — which is channeled through its adversarial legal system — practically discourages cooperation. It pushes developers and their opponents to pursue aggressive and expensive legal campaigns against each other. These campaigns burn huge amounts of time and millions of dollars in legal fees — money that could be spent on decarbonizing the economy.

In order to meet America’s climate goals, developers must build dozens of projects like SunZia, all around the country, in the years to come. That will not happen under today’s permitting system. The country needs something better.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.


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