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Tucson Electric Power's proposal to run lines to Mexico may merely be a scheme to force a competitor out of the state.

A TOP OFFICIAL FROM the U.S. Department of Energy jetted into Tucson last week, her arrival marking the next step in a megawatt battle to feed Sonora's voracious electricity market.

That scrap is getting downright dirty, as the DOE considers competing plans by Tucson Electric Power and Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM. Both hope to extend lines through Southern Arizona's desert and connect to northern Sonora.

At the same time, close scrutiny of one proposed TEP power line route--which actually cuts deeper into the Coronado National Forest than PNM's plan--promises more fierce skirmishes with area residents. You'll recall that the New Mexico company underwent a barrage of criticism last year for proposing to build lines through a Tucson wildlife corridor, and near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

As one observer wryly notes, "There are two things harder than hell to site anywhere. One is prisons. The other is power lines."

Ironically, the point may be moot: According to a source with ties to the energy industry, Tucson Electric has neither the desire nor the means to build lines into Sonora. "Basically, TEP's only goal is to run PNM out of Arizona by ruining the deal for PNM," says the source, who requested anonymity.

Chronology argues this case. It's known that PNM had its plan on the books nearly a year ahead of TEP. And before TEP even jumped into the fray, PNM had made overtures toward hatching a joint project, the Weekly is told. All of these efforts were ignored by TEP, our source reports, despite rumblings from the DOE that a cooperative project was preferred.

Instead, by presenting a competing plan--albeit insincerely--TEP realized it could perhaps queer PNM's project. The endgame: shutting the New Mexico company out of Sonora's booming energy market for years to come.

TEP continued dodging serious negotiations with PNM, the source says, even while hoping to satisfy DOE concerns by posturing as a scorned suitor.

In August, TEP chief Jim Pignatelli said PNM could escape its public relations nightmare by agreeing to share Tucson Electric's existing lines reaching south to Sahuarita. "Where PNM has completely missed the boat," Pignatelli told the Arizona Daily Star, "is that we can flow it across our systems, and they don't have to create this hue and cry."

"We told them that a year and a half ago," the CEO lamented. "We've fallen on deaf ears. We've tried to get them to see the light."

Jeffrey Harris, PNM's director of international business development, strikes a diplomatic pose over TEP's alleged skullduggery. "I do my very best to maintain a professional relationship with all of the people I work with," he says. "Which is where I would like to leave it. I have to assume they are working in good faith."

Meanwhile, his company still has many questions about TEP's ability to support massive lines to Mexico without risking outages, he says. That's even after PNM's much-criticized 90-day break from the public hearing process, begun last fall to "explore issues with (TEP)," Harris says, "the primary one being that they felt they had existing capacity that could avoid our need for new construction."

But as that break ends, Harris concludes that, "as currently configured, (TEP's) system does not have that capacity."

For their part, TEP officials aren't talking. Instead, company spokesmen Bill Norman and Steve Lynn have adopted the curious habit of hanging up each time the Weekly calls for comment.

Both trace this quirky mannerism to a story published by the Weekly in September. That article revealed that TEP's proposed connection in Mexico could place Tucson customers at risk from massive blackouts, based on information from the DOE.

Let's backtrack still further: On August 17, TEP first applied for federal permission to run a humongous, 345,000-volt transmission line to a substation in the Sonoran burg of Santa Ana. There it would plug into the Mexican grid through what's called a synchronous connection--in other words, the electricity could flow both ways, without a distinct break in the line.

But the proposed connection raised red flags, with one observer noting that, "Under TEP's proposal, if there's a significant (power) event that occurs in Mexico while TEP has that Mexican load on their system, it could domino on them."

In turn, that could spell lights-out for Tucsonans.

This opinion was confirmed by DOE senior analyst Ellen Russell. "There is nothing in their application with respect to any type of equipment that would be added to the facility for reliability purposes," she noted. Such an apparatus "would be added in Mexico, and it's not clear to us at the moment whether we're going to require that today, or if we're going to require it when they begin their reliability studies."

Finally, just as PNM weathered a storm of protest over its plans to string lines through rural mountains and valleys, TEP seems destined to catch flack over one of its proposed routes cutting through the Coronado National Forest near Nogales.

Ellen Russell confirmed that TEP's route would slice even deeper into the Coronado than paths proposed by its New Mexico competitor. The TEP route "roughly parallels the Santa Cruz and Pima county line," she says.

Either way, conservation-minded Arizonans will probably hope the Weekly's source is right--that TEP's scheming pays off, and all these destructive plans simply fade into the dark desert night.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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