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Towers of Power: El Cabo plant is up and running

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Wind technicians are still working out the kinks at El Cabo Wind Farm near Encino, the state’s largest wind-power generating facility.

The sprawling power plant began operating in January with 142 towering turbines spread out on about 56,000 acres of state and private lands in Torrance County.

Some of the 142 wind turbines in operation at Avangrid Renewables’ El Cabo Wind Farm near Encino. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal )

The facility’s command control center and its electric substation, where electricity is centrally collected through feeder lines connected to all the turbines, sit just north of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line, about 10 miles west of Encino.

From the substation, a newly built, high-power transmission line transports the electricity 28 miles north to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s main line near Clines Corners. From there, it flows northwest to massive interconnections in the Four Corners region and on to Southern California Edison, the utility that’s now buying all of El Cabo’s output under a long-term power purchase agreement.

At full capacity, El Cabo can produce 298 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 90,000 homes. But technicians with Avangrid Renewables, the company that built and operates the plant, are still tinkering with all the startup issues related to the newly installed turbines, which have steadily cranked up to full operating capacity since January.

The inside workings of El Cabo turbines, which are in cone heads mounted on top of towers, can be displayed on a computer screen in the command control center at the wind farm. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s fully up and operational now and has been for over a month,” said El Cabo plant manager Cody Herring. “But we’re still getting three to five turbines a day that are faulty, with some just waiting on parts. It’s all part of the learning process and working out the bugs, which is typical for any new site where you have to smooth out the kinks.”

When all the bugs are corrected, the power plant will generally operate at 99 percent capacity or better, said Avangrid Director of Development Mark Stacy.

Avangrid Development Director Mark Stacy climbs stairs to the entrance door at the base of a wind turbine tower at El Cabo Wind Farm. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“This is our first plant in New Mexico, and it’s now the largest one in the state,” Stacy said. “It’s also our single largest facility in the U.S. We have a 606 MW farm in South Texas, but that’s actually three large, separate facilities operating together.”

El Cabo is only slightly larger than the state’s second-biggest wind farm, the 297 MW Broadview facility near Clovis, which Pattern Energy Group brought online last year, also to supply power to California Southern Edison.

They’re two of 17 wind farms now operating in New Mexico, providing a total of 1.7 gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 422,000 average U.S. homes.

New Mexico earned bragging rights in April as the fastest-growing state for wind energy construction last year, with enough turbines added to produce 571 MW of electricity, or 51 percent more capacity than in 2016, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Another 1.7 GW of new wind construction projects in the state are now in the pipeline through 2020, including the most ambitious project to date – a 522 MW facility that Xcel Energy subsidiary Southwestern Public Service plans to build near Portales.

Avangrid itself is already working on its second local wind farm, the 166 MW La Joya facility, under contract with PNM to supply electricity to Facebook’s data center in Los Lunas. Construction will begin next year on that project, next to El Cabo on the south side of the Burlington Northern rail line.

It will be up and running by the end of 2019, Avangrid spokesman Art Sasse said.

Avangrid spokesman Art Sasse stands on the base floor inside a wind turbine tower at El Cabo Wind Farm. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Initial planning and roadwork for El Cabo first began in 2015, with plant construction fully underway by spring 2017. At its peak, the project employed about 450 construction and other workers, part of a 3,000-plus wind energy labor force working in New Mexico last year.

El Cabo now has 17 permanent employees, including three wind technicians trained at Mesalands Community College’s Wind Energy Technology Program in Tucumcari. The school has graduated 290 people from its certification courses and two-year degree program since 2009, many of them now employed at wind projects in New Mexico.

El Cabo salaries start above $50,000 a year for a novice, and above $60,000 for someone with experience.

“These are good-paying jobs,” said Shane Ferreira, 23, an Estancia native and Mesalands graduate who joined El Cabo last year. “If it wasn’t for opportunities like this, I’d have to leave the state.”

El Cabo also pays a total of $1.5 million annually to the state in lieu of taxes and for leases with eight private landowners, amounting to $37.5 million over the 25-year life of the project.

The project cost $500 million to build, part of about $3 billion in wind-related investments that have flowed into New Mexico to date.

Feeder lines carry all electric production from El Cabo turbines to this on-site substation, where a high-power transmission line takes it to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s main line near Clines Corners. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Despite the towering, 450-foot wind turbines, the full plant occupies only about 2 percent of project land area, allowing cattle ranching operations to continue and wildlife to run free.

The railroad limits impact even more.

El Cabo Wind Farm is on about 56,000 acres of state and private land, but the towers occupy only about 2 percent of the land, allowing wildlife like this pronghorn antelope to roam free. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“It runs right through here, so we can bring all the big parts right up to the site,” Sasse said. “Turbine blades are over 200 feet long, and the tower tubes are divided into three sections, with each one taking up a full semi truck. We were able to keep all that off the road.”

Like most wind farm developers, Avangrid benefited from federal wind production tax credits to build El Cabo. Those credits are now ratcheting down annually and will disappear by 2020.

But thanks to technological advances and industry innovation, the costs for wind energy have declined by two-thirds since 2009. And with demand for wind generation growing nationwide, especially among industrial and commercial customers like Facebook, Avangrid and other companies see a bright future on New Mexico’s gusty eastern plains.

“The wind resources here are fantastic, and so is the business climate,” Stacy said. “State leaders are really working to take advantage of New Mexico’s resources. That’s what made it No. 1 in wind-energy growth last year.”

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