Project Management Institute

Change of power

Tom Wray, founding partner, Southwestern Power Group, Phoenix, Arizona, USA



Tom Wray, founding partner, Southwestern Power Group, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

The southwest United States is full of sunshine and wind. But while turbines and solar arrays are increasingly capturing that renewable energy, the region lacks transmission infrastructure to bring it to market. SunZia Transmission LLC wants to change that.

The organization's US$1.6 billion to US$2 billion SunZia Southwest Transmission Project will deliver two electric transmission lines stretching 515 miles (829 kilometers) as well as several substations along the way. The goal of the mega-project, slated for completion in 2021, is to carry renewable energy across the Southwest and into New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Tom Wray, a founding partner of Southwestern Power Group, a majority owner of SunZia Transmission, has shepherded the initiative through a complex federal permitting and environmental review process. The organization began project planning in 2006 but didn't receive federal approval until 2015—and state permits still aren't in hand.

We're providing the means to deliver solar and wind energy resources to markets that demand them. For instance, in 2015, California raised its renewable energy standard so that by 2030, 50 percent of all energy generated and consumed by retail customers must be from renewable sources. SunZia will be a tool for California's utilities to meet that higher renewable standard, which is by far the most aggressive in the country.

How have changes in the regulatory climate affected the project?

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency took two big steps that will lead to a greater reliance on renewable energy in this country. First, it lowered the acceptable level of harmful ozone produced by power plants. This will limit, if not eliminate, the ability of utilities in Arizona to build gas-fired plants for the generation of electricity. Second, and more significant, the agency's Clean Power Plan will greatly reduce pulverized coal generation, which customers in California and Arizona have relied on for decades.

What do these changes mean for the project?

They've increased the demand for the renewable power that SunZia will deliver. The way to secure stable and adequate power while reducing coal power will be a combination of strategically placed gas generation and high-capacity wind energy that will survive the daily drop-off that you get with solar generation: Wind in New Mexico can generate power well into the evening, nicely complementing the deteriorating availability of the solar resource. There's an increasing need for transmission projects that will take that wind energy from very remote locations and deliver it.

How does your project plan address the growing demand for renewable energy over time?

The current scope of the project includes two alternating-current transmission lines, but we have an optional scope to allow one of those lines to be either constructed as or converted to a direct-current line. That would allow the project's total transfer capacity to increase from 3,000 megawatts to 4,500 megawatts.

When we originally scoped the project, we planned to make that decision based on commercial reasons. The market will decide.

How did the federal approval process affect the project's scope?

With projects subject to federal oversight and permitting, it's very difficult to control scope creep. The government has to thoroughly vet reasonable and feasible alternatives to the proposed action. We started out with a plan that would best fit the project's needs, and we also suggested alternative plans. As more people provided comments, more alternative routes were added and analyzed, so the scope of the environmental impact statement grew.

The best we could do was to try to convince federal agencies that certain routes are simply not reasonable or feasible. It's like leading by following.


Small Talk

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

Patience. If you're impatient, you might rely on imperfect information that leads to decisions that a project manager will regret.

What's the best professional advice you ever received?

You can't have it both ways, and you cannot have more than there is.

Which film has special meaning for you?

Saving Private Ryan. It's an inspiring movie—especially the captain's persistence in carrying out his mission to bring that young man back to his mother.

Why did it take almost two years between the government's final environmental impact statement and federal approval?

The U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range conducts low-altitude tests over private, state and federally managed land some 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of the proposed route—which essentially created an impasse with the Department of Defense.

In the end, we were able to reach a resolution by agreeing to bury 5 miles of the overhead line near the missile range, clearing the way for the Bureau of Land Management to conclude its environmental investigation. To my knowledge, there's never been anything quite like this resolution—and I've been in this business for 43 years. We're very proud of that.

What made the difference in achieving that outcome?

It was hard work and not giving up, despite obstacles that many of us thought were insurmountable. Also, we had a lot of folks in the current presidential administration who are big believers, as we are here and as I am personally, in the value of renewable energy resources for the future of this country.

The relationships we developed with the administration, the departments of Interior and Defense, and Congress have been priceless to us in terms of moving this project forward. PM

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