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NM wind energy development surges forward

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Pattern Energy will break ground this fall on a 1,000-megawatt complex of wind farms in central eastern New Mexico, as well as a new 150-mile transmission line to carry those electrons to Western markets.

Pattern’s Western Spirit Wind Development project represents about a $1.5 billion investment that will generate some 1,000 construction jobs over the next year and more than 150 permanent jobs, according to the company.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in Pattern’s plans for the state. It expects to build a total of 4,000 MW of wind generation here in the coming years, representing an $8 billion investment, said Sarah Webster, Pattern’s vice president for investor and government relations.

“We are just at the beginning in New Mexico,” Webster told participants in a webinar Wednesday afternoon. “…We are working closely with local communities to create jobs and bring positive economic impacts, including long-term community benefits.”

The webinar, hosted by the State Land Office, brought together industry representatives and government officials, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, to discuss a surge in wind development underway in New Mexico, along with the state’s potential to become one of the largest suppliers of wind and other clean energy throughout the West.

“We’re at the tipping point. It’s taking off,” Heinrich told participants. “… There are lots of challenges ahead, but it’s in our control and ability to lean in to make a difference and out-compete others to become a leading state for exporting electricity and importing dollars and jobs.”

New Mexico’s gusty eastern plains offer some of the best wind-generating potential in the U.S., attracting broad interest from energy developers for more than a decade.

That’s already led to construction of about 20 wind farms that collectively produce nearly 2,000 MW of electricity, or enough energy to power nearly 630,000 homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s latest annual report on wind development in the U.S., released in April.

And with state government now aggressively pushing clean energy development, new project proposals are flooding into the State Land Office for approval to build more renewable generation on state trust land, Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said. About 40 applications for new solar and wind projects are being processed.

New Mexico wind generation and development supports nearly 2,000 local jobs and provides about $20 million a year in land lease payments, and in state and local revenue, according to the Wind Energy Association.

More than 2,000 MW of additional wind development is in the pipeline for New Mexico, said John Hensley, the association’s vice president for research and analytics.

“As advancements with wind power continue to accumulate across the country, New Mexico stands to benefit substantially as current projects under construction or in advanced development will nearly double the state’s installed wind capacity,” Hensley told webinar participants.

Just since last summer, the Land Office has approved leases for four new wind farms that together will produce about 400 MW of electricity, generating about $80 million in revenue for the state over the life of those projects, Garcia Richard said.

That includes the 140-MW La Joya II wind farm just west of Encino in Torrance County, which will supply electricity to Public Service Company of New Mexico. Avangrid Renewables broke ground on that project in May, alongside the 166 MW La Joya I wind farm, which PNM will use to channel electricity to Facebook’s massive data center in Los Lunas.

The newest land leases, signed June 1, went to Pattern Energy to permit development on about 16,400 acres of state trust land as part of its 1,000-MW Western Spirit project. The leases will generate about $16 million for the state over the life of the project. And since most Western Spirit wind farms will be built on private property, millions more will flow to local landowners.

Pattern is by far the largest wind developer in New Mexico. It already operates 550 MW of wind farms near Clovis that now supply renewable electricity to utilities in California and other Western states. The company invested $1.6 billion in those projects, creating about 700 construction jobs and 30 permanent jobs, Webster said.

Pattern is also the anchor tenant for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a 520-mile high-voltage line that would run from central New Mexico near Corona in Lincoln County to Arizona. Pattern could build up to 3,000 MW of wind farms around the Corona area to transport over SunZia once it is built.

Unlike the Western Spirit transmission line, however, which has all federal, state and local permits in place, SunZia must still win state and federal approval to move forward. Opposition from landowners, wildlife conservation groups, and local politicians – who object to SunZia’s potential impact on rural landscapes and migratory birds along the Rio Grande – could still derail the project.

That’s one of the few big challenges that wind development is still facing in New Mexico. More wind generation is contingent on increased transmission capacity. More outreach to communities is needed, said Fernando Martinez, executive director of the state Renewable Energy Transmission Authority.

“Convincing people that investment in transmission infrastructure is as important as investment in a school or hospital is critical for the economy,” Martinez said. “It’s essential to develop a reliable, connected grid for renewable energy.”

And given the boom-and-bust cycles that plague the oil and gas industry, it’s critical to develop New Mexico’s renewable resources to offset state dependence on income from fossil fuels, Garcia Richard said.

“The recent unprecedented challenges facing our state have only strengthened our determination at the Land Office to execute build-out of New Mexico’s incredible potential for wind energy on the hundreds of thousands of acres of state trust land that are prime for these projects,” Garcia Richard said. “Not only will increased wind power boost our economy for decades while raising valuable revenue for our public schools, it will lessen New Mexico’s dependence on fossil fuels and take on the role of being an important economic vehicle in the recovery fight against COVID-19.”

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