James B. Pepper Rutland | MMR Southwestern Power Group and the Sunzia Transmission Line Featured in the Wall Street Journal

Pepper Rutland
7 min readJun 15, 2023

May 22, 2023

BATON ROUGE, LA -MMR’s Southwestern Power Group is featured in the Wall Street Journal discussing the permitting hurdles involved in developing the largest, single-phase renewable transmission project in U.S. history, the SunZia Transmission Line.

SunZia consists of a 550-mile bi-directional ± 525 kV high-voltage direct current transmission line between central New Mexico and south-central Arizona. SunZia provides the capacity to transport up to 3,000 MW of clean, renewable energy for more than 2.5 million Americans.

David Getts, MMR’s general manager of Phoenix-based Southwestern Power Group, said that when the project was conceived in 2006, the company thought it would receive its permits in about five years. “We didn’t honestly know enough to know what we were getting into,” Getts said. “And of course, here we are 17 years later.”

MMR’s Southwestern Power Group sold Phase I of the Sunzia Transmission Line Project to Pattern Energy in the summer of 2022.

MMR has maintained all rights to Phase II, the RioSol Transmission Line 2, that includes the equity, interest and buildout. The RioSol High Voltage Alternating Current (HVAC) transmission line will have a capacity of 1,500 MW, enough to power approximately five hundred thousand homes in rural New Mexico and Arizona, designed for interconnection to regional utilities, along its 550-mile route. RioSol is slated to begin construction in 2026 and begin full operation in 2028.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article below.

By Jennifer Hiller and Andrew Restuccia

Photographs by Adria Malcolm for The Wall Street Journal

May 18, 2023 at 5:00 am ET

When plans for the SunZia project-a massive power line and wind farm in the Western U.S.-were first laid in 2006, Taylor Swift had just released a debut album and George W. Bush was president.

The project might finally receive a crucial permit this week.

That 17-year process underscores why some in Washington say there is a pressing need for an overhaul of the country’s rules for approving infrastructure projects.

As soon as Thursday, the project is expected to receive a green light from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management for a high-voltage power line, according to people familiar with the matter. The permit would allow the developer Pattern Energy to build the country’s largest wind energy project across three counties in rural New Mexico and deliver that electricity to large markets in Arizona and California.

Developers first applied for federal approval in 2008; environmental reviews started in 2009. In 2011, the project was “fast-tracked” by the Obama administration.

David Getts, general manager of Phoenix-based Southwestern Power Group, the original developer of SunZia, said that when the project was conceived in 2006, the company thought it would receive its permits in about five years.

“We didn’t honestly know enough to know what we were getting into,” Getts said. “And of course, here we are 17 years later.”

President Biden and U.S. lawmakers are now making another run at streamlining the federal permitting process, with the issue becoming a central topic in ongoing negotiations to raise the debt ceiling.

Most agree the system is flawed. The labyrinthine state, local and federal permitting processes are often drawn out for years, require duplicative paperwork and generate thousands of pages of government analysis. The average federal environmental review, for example, takes 4 1/2 years, according to a 2020 White House report.

The SunZia power project is expected to receive a green light from the Bureau of Land Management.

But vast divides on energy policy between Republicans and Democrats have stalled efforts thus far to change the system.

A deal negotiated last year by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin as a companion to the Democrats’ energy and climate-spending law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, would have helped speed energy projects from wind- and solar-power development to pipelines for oil and gas, in part by streamlining federal permits and limiting court challenges. It failed to secure enough support to pass Congress last year, as some Democrats balked at weakening environmental protections, while some Republicans rejected easing the way for renewable projects.

Another effort could revive portions of the legislation, either as a stand-alone bill or as part of the debt-ceiling talks. Meanwhile, the White House last week issued recommendations for executive and legislative changes aimed at speeding up the approval of transmission projects such as SunZia.

John Podesta, a top Biden climate adviser who has worked in several Democratic administrations, said he was surprised to discover when he returned to the White House last year that a transmission project that came across his desk during the Obama administration still hadn’t been approved. “That’s unacceptable,” he said at a recent event.

Podesta is spearheading the administration’s efforts to overhaul permitting rules. New guidance issued by the White House directs agencies to complete permitting decisions and environmental reviews for transmissions projects within two years and allows companies to petition the president directly if the government misses permitting deadlines.

Democrats and Republicans have differing visions for changes in permitting. For many Democrats, it is largely about speeding up the country’s transition to renewable energy to better position the U.S. to tackle climate change. Many Republicans want to ease the approval of oil and gas projects.

Environmental groups worry that efforts to accelerate permitting could weaken protections for vulnerable communities. “Cancer clusters, asthma rates, premature deaths: they all tell the story of what can go wrong” if communities don’t have a voice in the energy projects that are built in their neighborhoods, said Raúl García, who oversees the policy and legislative arm of the environmental law group Earthjustice.

Opponents of the SunZia project say the yearslong saga can’t solely be blamed on bureaucratic paralysis, adding that the project altered part of its route. The push for faster approval of initiatives such as the SunZia power project is a point of political debate.

“SunZia is not the hapless victim of excessive red tape,” said Peter Else, the head of a local conservation group who has challenged the project in court, adding that a similar project in the region managed to get its permits in far less time. “They are the victim of their own poor land-use planning.”

Southwestern Power sold SunZia last year to Pattern Energy, which said it takes time to work with federal, state and local governments, as well as stakeholder and environmental groups, to determine the best route.

The 3,500-megawatt wind farm and transmission line, along with a parallel line being developed by Southwestern, are intended to complement the abundance of solar energy projects across the region. Wind projects generate most of their electricity at night, when solar power declines.

“We continue to see a market in the West that needs a significant amount of these projects, way more than what is really possible or planned right now,” said Hunter Armistead, Pattern Energy’s chief executive. The company last year completed Western Spirit, a wind and transmission project in New Mexico with 377 turbines. SunZia will be three times the size.

The route and plans for SunZia have shifted over the years. Changes after negotiations with various stakeholder groups have included the addition of bird-diverter equipment and setting aside 1,200 acres along the Rio Grande for conservation. A river crossing was moved and placed next to another Pattern-owned transmission line. Each adjustment delayed the approval of local, state and federal permits.

Pattern Energy expects to start construction this year. Customers that have agreed to buy the power starting in 2026 include the University of California system and Shell Energy North America.

“It’s been quite a hurdle, and it shows you what is one of the problems with trying to do transmission and get our climate goals met quickly,” said Garry George, director of the Clean Energy Initiative at the National Audubon Society.

Some White House officials worry that red tape could delay projects funded by the infrastructure and climate legislation that Mr. Biden recently signed into law, potentially undermining two signature accomplishments heading into an election.

“The White House doesn’t have a prayer of implementing the infrastructure bill or the [Inflation Reduction Act] without permitting reform,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R., La.), a lead Republican negotiator in the debt-ceiling talks. “And anyone who’s actually out there trying to build things will tell you that.”

The Western Spirit wind and transmission project in New Mexico was completed last year. It was constructed by MMR and MasTec as a joint venture.

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ABOUT MMR MMR is the industry leader in instrumentation and electrical construction, maintenance and technical services. Under the leadership of President and CEO James “Pepper” Rutland, MMR continues to grow both regionally and nationally with 30 branch offices throughout North and South America. For more information on MMR or to inquire about services offered, please visit our brochure, website or call 225–756–5090. Like us on Facebook, LinkedIn, or follow us on Twitter. ABOUT SOUTHWESTERN POWER GROUP SouthWestern Power Group (SWPG) is an independent developer of utility-scale generation and transmission assets, with a market focus in the Desert Southwest. Since 2000, the Phoenix-based company has distinguished itself as a leading force in evolving energy markets, including renewable energy, storage and smart electrical grids. SWPG is a leader in the region and maintains positive relationships with other experienced entities, including investor-owned utilities, public utility commissions and regional transmission authorities. SWPG is a wholly-owned subsidiary of MMR Group, a privately-owned construction services firm based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. MMR is a world leader in electrical and instrumentation construction, maintenance, management, and technical services. For more information, visit https://southwesternpower.com.

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Originally published at https://mmrgrp.com.

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Pepper Rutland

Pepper Rutland is the founder and CEO at MMR Group , headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. To read more about Pepper, visit PepperRutland.com!