In the 1930s, the Hoover Dam symbolized the push to electrify the American West. Today, a New Mexican wind project represents the effort to green it.
Pattern Energy recently broke ground on SunZia Wind and Transmission, a huge, 3.5-gigawatt wind farm that will send power from New Mexico to California via a 550-mile transmission line. The developer says it will be the largest wind development in the Western Hemisphere when it comes online in 2026 — generating about three times more power annually than the Hoover Dam.
The project is vital to California’s climate goals and is expected to deliver a surge of clean power to the state during the evening, when wind speeds accelerate, solar generation plunges and natural gas generation soars. SunZia is one of two massive wind projects that will serve California’s hungry energy market. Chokecherry and Sierra Madre, a 3.5-GW wind project in Wyoming that will be served by a 732-mile transmission line, is expected to come online in 2029.
“Those projects were ahead of their time,” said Ric O’Connell, the executive director of GridLab, a consultancy. “When they started, 100 percent clean goals would have been laughable. Now, six Western states have 100 percent goals. It’s a different world.”
SunZia has reached a series of critical milestones. In November, it announced a deal to sell 575 megawatts of power to the Clean Power Alliance, a community choice aggregator in California. Late last month, Pattern said it had secured $11 billion in financing and broken ground on the project. And on Tuesday, GE Vernova said it had received an order from the project for 674 turbines — the largest in the manufacturer’s history. Another 242 turbines will be provided by Vestas Wind Systems, making SunZia the largest single onshore wind order in the history of the Danish turbine-maker.
It comes at a critical moment for the wind industry. Wind installations fell in 2023 as turbine manufacturers reported mounting financial losses and the outlook for future development was clouded by transmission constraints, siting challenges and increasingly stiff competition from solar.
The order is particularly good news for GE, which is planning to spin off its renewable and power divisions into a stand-alone public company in the second quarter of this year. GE’s renewable division has struggled to turn a profit in recent quarters, though company executives said its grid and onshore wind business made money in the third quarter. The company is scheduled to report its annual results at the end of January.
Turbine components for SunZia will be built at GE facilities in Florida, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, the company said. GE Vernova’s chief executive of its wind business, Vic Abate, gave credit to the Inflation Reduction Act for “enabling our continued investments in wind technology, domestic manufacturing and product quality.”
“These investments are aiding the country’s efforts to decarbonize the electric grid in support of climate change goals,” he added.
The Inflation Reduction Act contains $369 billion in clean energy tax credits.
Vestas also encountered financial turbulence in 2023. It reported a loss in the second quarter before managing to turn a slight profit in the third quarter. Company executives said the majority of its turbine components for SunZia would be made in the United States.
“We’re continuing to see a surge in demand for renewable energy and we are proud to be at the forefront of this transformation,” Vestas North America President Laura Beane said in a statement.
Analysts said SunZia could deliver a boost to the wind industry but cautioned that other wind projects still face challenges. Gigawatt-scale facilities on the scale of SunZia and Chokecherry Sierra Madre are likely to be “few and far between” because of land use constraints and a lack of transmission capacity, said Samantha Woodworth, an analyst who tracks the industry at Wood Mackenzie.
She predicted wind farm installations will increase over 2023 levels but are not on track to reach pre-pandemic levels. The U.S. installed more than 14 GW of wind capacity in 2020 and 2021 but saw annual installations fall to around 6.9 GW last year, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Continuing effects of inflation and questions about how tax credits will be handled under the Inflation Reduction Act are still impacting the pace of wind development, Woodworth said.
SunZia’s success, by contrast, was largely dependent on it securing permits to build a transmission line.
“The location itself is fairly economical before tax credits are even taken into account, so the success of the project really hinged on the transmission line success more than anything else. Which is a major piece of the onshore industry’s future success — getting transmission upgraded or built in a timely fashion,” Woodworth wrote in an email.
SunZia has faced considerable hurdles since it was first proposed in 2006. Its 550-mile transmission line has faced opposition from birders, was rerouted 100 miles to address concerns by the Defense Department about its proximity to a missile range and was briefly paused last year due to opposition from Native American tribes. But the project has received a boost from the Biden administration, which approved its permit after vowing to speed environmental reviews of major transmission projects.
“The government stepped up to make sure we got permits,” Hunter Armistead, chief executive of Pattern Energy, told E&E News in November.
SunZia is a megaproject by almost any measure. Pattern executives estimate that SunZia will generate enough power for three million homes. That’s three times as much energy as what’s produced by the largest wind farm currently in operation, the 1-GW Great Prairie Wind project in Texas. There are only six power plants in the entire country with a larger listed capacity than 3.5 GW.
Pattern has compared SunZia to the Hoover Dam, saying it will generate three times the amount of power as the giant hydroelectric facility along the Arizona-Nevada border. A company spokesperson declined to provide SunZia’s estimated capacity factor. But if SunZia achieved the national wind fleet’s average capacity factor of 36 percent, it would generate more than 11 terawatt-hours of power annually. The Hoover Dam generated an average of 3.9 TWh annually between 2018 and 2022, according to EIA data.
Kevin Wetzel, Pattern assistant vice president of business development, said in a statement that the company plans to begin erecting the project’s first turbines in the second half of 2024. The transmission line, which will cross New Mexico and terminate south of Phoenix, is expected to be completed in 2025 while the wind farm is anticipated to be done in 2026.
This story also appears in Energywire.