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Federal officials address Southwest's potential for renewable energy, transmission challenges

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SANTA FE, N.M. - The potential for renewable energy development in the Southwest is tremendous, but two top officials in President Barack Obama's administration said Monday much work needs to be done to meet the challenges of exporting that power to market.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz were among dozens of state and tribal officials who met in Santa Fe as part of the administration's effort to develop recommendations regarding the transmission, storage and distribution of energy.

Jewell and Moniz said one of the biggest challenges has been working across state lines and Native American jurisdictions to site and permit transmission and pipeline projects. They pointed to the $2 billion SunZia project between New Mexico and Arizona as one example.

The proposed transmission line was stalled for months until the Department of Defence offered a compromise this spring that eased concerns about the project's effects on operations at a missile range in southern New Mexico.

Jewell said the U.S. needs a comprehensive plan for energy development. Instead of seeing individual processes, a strategic focus is needed that considers the expansion of oil and gas with renewable energy and the planning of transmission lines and pipelines all at the same time.

"Each of us has a role to play and how do we knit those things together so that we can co-operate and have an energy future that is more sensible, less complicated and less bureaucratic than it's been," she said. "Certainly, we have a long way to go to make that happen."

More than a dozen meetings are being held around the country as part of the administration's energy review. A report focused on infrastructure challenges is expected in January.

Previous meetings in other states have covered rail and barge transportation issues, the growing connections between natural gas and electricity production and infrastructure limitations in developing shale resources.

One of the focuses of the New Mexico meeting was the federal government's relationship with tribes, which have vast reserves of coal, other fossil fuels and renewable energy potential. Experts have estimated that solar and wind energy from tribal lands alone could supply a significant percentage of the nation's annual electricity needs.

Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, the country's largest Native American reservation, was among those at the meeting. He told the panel that Congress needs to act to give tribes the same seat at the table as states when it comes to energy-related issues. He said tribes want to be able to make their own decisions when it comes to energy development on their lands.

The Navajo Nation has a coal supply that could last another 200 years as well as prime areas for solar and wind development, Shelly said.

"The Indian tribe that has the resource, they're just the audience right now," he said during a break in the meeting. "What I want to do is form a team and play the game. We're capable, we have the resources to form the team and compete."

Moniz and Jewell said they expect tribes to play a key role in supplying the U.S. with energy in the future, but they acknowledged more needs to be done to spur investment partnerships that can help tribal projects get off the ground.

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