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Defense Protests White Sands Wind-Power Line on National Security Grounds

Flickr user silencematters

The Defense Department has formally protested on national security grounds the preferred route selected by the Bureau of Land Management for a high voltage transmission line that crosses the northern extension of the Army White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The Pentagon suggested as alternatives a more northerly route or burying 35 miles of the line at cost of $350 million.

BLM has since 2009 overseen the right-of-way process for the 515 mile, 500 kV transmission line planned by SunZia LLC to link wind-power generating sites in rural New Mexico with Arizona. The bureau selected the route through the missile range as its “preferred alternative,” despite objections by Defense and in a final environmental-impact statement on June 14.

John Conger, acting undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, said in an Aug. 7 letter to Neil Kornze, BLM principal deputy director, that the route across the missile range precluded the “capability to fully test the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Architecture and other weapons systems under realistic threat environments at WSMR,” the exact same language  Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense, used  in a March 19 letter to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, BLM’s parent agency.

Conger said “it should be clearly understood that no other area exists in the United States where it is possible to conduct flight tests with the footprint requirements these weapon systems present….[including] the permanently  designated and specially allocated restricted airspace in the northern extension area.” That area, a 1,600 mile square box, consists of BLM land, acreage owned by the state of New Mexico and private ranches which the Army has used for tests under agreements dating back to 1972.

BLM, Conger said in his letter, has “not adequately analyzed the significant risks to national security” if an above ground transmission line was constructed across the northern extension.

Conger said BLM should also examine “the discovery of substantial new information relevant to burying a segment of the transmission line, “ and attached a report completed in June by a Defense and Energy Department Technical Working Group examining the technical and economic aspects of a buried transmission  line.

That report said BLM considered burying the entire 515 mile line, but deemed it “technically infeasible due to potential reliability concerns, operational risks, environmental impacts, and high construction cost.” BLM also considered a short underground route to cross the Rio Grande, but not burial of the line across the WSMR northern extension.

BLM also reported that only one 500 kV line existed in the United States, a 2.1-mile system at Grand Coulee Dam, Wash., and the agency decided to replace that with overhead lines primarily based on the costs, the availability of overland routing, and the fear of a fire like the one that occurred in in the Grand Coulee underground lines in the 1980s.

BLM also opposed burying the SunZia line because “there has been limited experience with long-distance 500 kV underground transmission lines in operation around the world.”  BLM said in the final SunZia impact statement that “the worldwide suppliers of underground cable components may not have the manufacturing capability to supply long lengths of 500 kV buried cable systems.”

The Defense-Energy working group reported that utilities in Canada, Tokyo and Shanghai operate 500 kV transmission lines that span 18.6, 12.5 and 10.5 miles, respectively. Cable companies Siemens and General Electric said it would be possible to build an underground line that exceeds the 35-mile line Defense suggested for the missile range, from 40 to 70 miles.

The working group report said burying a line comes with a multiple of 10 times the cost of an overhead line -- $10 million per mile, versus $1 million -- putting the cost of the northern extension underground line at $350 million.

Ian Calkins, a SunZia spokesman, said the cost of the company’s system now stands at $1.5 billion, including the 515-mile transmission line and five power substations.  He said “undergrounding 35 miles of 500kV overhead transmission is neither technically feasible nor economically reasonable.” 

The working group report said Defense would face equally big ticket costs if it had to recreate the missile ranges “unique capabilities at another location.”  The range, including the extension area, comprises 5,731 square miles and the cost to acquire an equivalent amount of land in another location would be $1.83 billion. It would also cost defense another $300 million to $500 million to replicate the range instrumentation at another location, the report said.

SunZia projected building the line will create 6,200 construction jobs over a four year period with an economic impact of $425 million. Monte Marlin, WSMR spokeswoman said the range has a 9,000-person workforce that includes military, civilians, family members and contractor personnel who have  “permanent, high-quality jobs that generate $2.3M per day of revenue.”

In his letter to Kornze at BLM, Conger asked for assistance in resolving Defense objections to the SunZia route across the missile range before the right-of-way decision next month. 

(Image via silencematters/

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