LA LUZ By the time students at La Luz Elementary School returned from Thanksgiving vacation, the huge Public Service of New Mexico solar energy construction project just down the road was completed.
Years went into the planning and negotiating between PNM, a privately held public utility company, and the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. Then there was the challenge of locating and purchasing a good location, grading, preparation, and installation of 101,250 posts to support the installation of “Thin Film Technology” solar panels made by First Solar of Tempe, Ariz. Finally, the process of testing and connecting to the PNM grid had to be coordinated. Every day since March, school buses and cars carrying curious riders have been passing the long chain link fence and parked pick-up trucks and vehicles that surrounded the slowly emerging 70 acre project. Now they know it is a solar energy facility.
Fifth-grade students at La Luz know what solar energy is. They make solar energy ovens and bake cookies to take home. The sixth-grade science textbooks, Prentice Hall Science Explorer, published in 2006, include a New Mexico section about renewable energy and ways to conserve energy as “the modern world runs out of fossil fuels.” Sixth-graders across the state begin to learn about capturing solar energy in cells and panels that can be stored in batteries, along with other strategies like passive solar housing to capture the power of the sun.
In July 2012, the Solar Energy Industries Association ranked New Mexico fourth in the nation for its 2011 solar energy production and, in 2012, the biggest reason for some decline in costs is that the cost of solar panels has plummeted 44 percent over the past three years, according to PNM spokeswoman Susan Sponar.
Now, La Luz students have a huge solar energy center next door to look at for real. Here, there are some 101,250 panels that can supply about 2,450 homes for a very long time — and the major costs for construction are over. The lucrative jobs put money in the pockets of some 115 temporary construction workers. Otero County will receive tax revenues in property taxes at “an estimated $180,000” next year.
In October 2011, a PNM solar energy project came online in Otero County south of Alamogordo supplying enough power to 1,600 average-sized homes per year.
After the facility goes online, maintenance costs will be minimal. These are all a big plus, she said, because New Mexico taxpayers pay for this in renewable energy rates attached to their monthly bills.
But other benefits of renewable solar energy are big in the sense of improved air quality and minimal water use.
Shifting from coal-fired power plants to solar energy at the La Luz facility saves some 7,200 tons of carbon emissions that go into the atmosphere or the equivalent of removing 1,360 cars from the road, according to the PNM website. Taxpayers across the state are financing six other sites for PNM, including the one in Alamogordo, across the state — an overall equivalent of 7,750 cars off the road and power for 13,900 homes. Three more solar plants for New Mexico are in negotiations with PRC, along with the purchase of more wind energy.
While solar energy is not generated at night, PNM purchases electricity from a mix of energy facilities they own or from companies they work with — including a geothermal project near Lordsburg that will be online soon, as well as wind power, natural gas, two coal-fired power plants and nuclear power from Arizona. And the company is investigating new battery technologies for storage.
“PNM has been growing our renewable energy portfolio for about 10 years,” Sponar said.
While the company strives to balance environmental concerns, costs to customers and reliability throughout the day every day, she said they also offer Reduce Your Use Grants to non-profit organizations to become more efficient, thereby saving more money for their missions. Private homeowners can cover their rates and also participate in some return for solar panels they install for their homes while selling extra power back to PNM.
Following the loss of solar tax credits for home installation in New Mexico in the 1970s, the New Mexico Solar Association and others began to legislate for passage of a Renewable Energy Portfolio standard for PNM, according to Charles Bensinger, founder of the Alternative Fuels Program at Santa Fe Community College. Bensinger became the only lobbyist for NMSA in the late 1980s and then joined the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy based in Santa Fe. Renewable Energy Industries Association of New Mexico, a voluntary nonprofit organization made up of relatively small solar companies, CCAE and others, continue to call for and legislate for a renewable energies portfolio for New Mexico electric rate payers.
Now, students across New Mexico are seeing independent providers, rural electric companies and the PNM portfolio take on reality as the state makes the transition to renewable energy sources for the new century.