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Planned solar project will power 54% of the city’s needs

Jicarilla Apache President-elect Darrell Paiz is joined by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, City Councilor Pat Davis and PNM President Pat Vincent-Collawn in announcing the building of a solar power farm on the reservation. (Adolphe Piere Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of coal burning the new solar project is expected to replace.

The city of Albuquerque’s facility footprint spans nearly 10 million square feet across about 680 buildings.

By 2021, renewable energy could power about two-thirds of that space.

The city will be the largest subscriber for a planned solar project on the Jicarilla Apache Nation, having committed to buying half of the energy generated by the 50-megawatt facility.

The agreement is part of Public Service Company of New Mexico’s new Solar Direct program, which is grouping big customers like the city in order to make large renewable projects possible.

Hecate Energy intends to develop the solar plant on about 400 acres of Jicarilla Apache land in northern New Mexico. It would replace 168 million tons of coal burning a year, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said, and could save the city – which spends $1.2 million a month on energy bills – between $800,000 to $5 million over five years.

The project still requires approval from the state’s Public Regulation Commission, a process PNM and Hecate officials say should take about six months.

“I believe our city should be 100% renewable – not in the far-away 2075 future, but in the next five years,” Keller said during a news conference Thursday on Civic Plaza. “Because of this announcement, we might actually be able to achieve that. We’ll (achieve) a huge chunk of that (now) thanks to our partners.”

Following approval, construction of the $220 million project would take less than a year, said Craig Overmyer, vice president of operations for Chicago-based Hecate.

The city would pay nothing up front, but officials said its interest drove the process.

PNM CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn said Keller approached the utility company about a partnership to help reach the city’s sustainability goals, prompting the creation of the Solar Direct program. She said it allows major power users – such as cities, schools and big companies – to subscribe to get the solar energy they need “all without customers who aren’t part of the program subsidizing their goals.”

And grouping them also enables larger, more economically efficient developments, PNM says.

“The price to do 50 megawatt, utility-scale solar is less than half the cost it would be to put it on rooftops – that’s why this is a great project,” said Thomas Fallgren, vice president of generation for PNM.

The city has committed to buying 25 megawatts produced by the station each year for 15 years, a city spokesman said.

That would cover about 54% of the city’s electricity needs. About 30 smaller-scale renewable energy projects already done or coming online in the next year – like solar panels on certain fire stations and other buildings – will cover another 11%, according to the city spokesman.

“I have to admit this is a day I didn’t think would ever come for the city of Albuquerque – and certainly not this quickly – so I couldn’t be more proud,” said City Councilor Pat Davis, who helped set the city’s first renewable energy standard when he and Councilor Isaac Benton in 2016 co-sponsored a resolution calling on the city to obtain 25% of its energy from solar by 2025.

The project is the first in New Mexico for Hecate.

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