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Major public-private solar project gets OK

An existing solar array near Deming in southeastern New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

State regulatory authorities approved construction of a new 50-megawatt solar project this week to provide renewable energy to a number of cities, counties and entities around the state.

The solar array, to be located on 400 acres at the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico, will come online in March 2021 as part of a novel partnership among Public Service Company of New Mexico and five local governments, including the cities of Albuquerque, Deming and Silver City, plus Santa Fe and Grant counties. Deming Public Schools, Western New Mexico University and Walmart are also participants.

The five-member state Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved the project, dubbed the PNM Direct Solar program, to help participants achieve their sustainable energy goals at an affordable price, said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

“We have put our city in the top 10 nationwide for renewable cities,” Keller said in a statement. “We’re working side-by-side with our partners to show that we can do better for future generations.”

The project will cost $50-$60 million, paid for by participating entities. It’s a first-of-its-kind collaboration between PNM and large institutional consumers to voluntarily work together on building a renewable facility to serve all their needs.

Once online, the array will cover at least 54% of Albuquerque’s public electric consumption, propelling the city more than halfway toward its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030, said Kelsey Rader, the city’s sustainability officer.

The city is currently completing construction on nine more rooftop solar systems, for a total of 38 city-owned systems that together provide another 11 to 15 MW of renewable generation. With planned energy efficiency retrofits at city buildings, plus new electric vehicles and charging stations, Albuquerque could reach 80% renewables by 2021.

The new utility-scale solar project is critical for Albuquerque and its partners to achieve renewable goals, because economies of scale substantially lower costs compared with individual rooftop systems, Rader said.

Participants will save about 5% on electricity costs in the first year, although after PNM shuts the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in 2022, annual savings could decline because fuel costs for all PNM customers will drop, said PNM Vice President of Generation Tom Fallgren.

Project costs are also lowered by building the facility at Jicarilla, which already has a transmission line connecting to PNM’s grid. There are no property taxes at Jicarilla, although the tribe will receive $1.5 million in lease payments.

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