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Building a green economy

A scarecrow stands in front of turbines on a wind farm in Lovington in 2012. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

There’s a groundswell in state and grassroots efforts in New Mexico to tap into the burgeoning economic development and job-creation opportunities associated with building a green energy economy.

Advocates say the benefits can substantially outweigh the costs, although to be clear, the state will face significant disruptions as traditional dependence on the extractive fossil fuel industry declines.

In fact, transitioning the electric grid to renewable generation is already bringing real hardship to some communities, particularly in northwestern New Mexico, where coal mining and coal-fired generating plants have provided thousands of high-paying jobs for decades, especially for members of the Navajo Nation.

And now, with the oil and gas industry facing a historic bust in the pandemic and a rocky road to recovery, pain is also widespread in southeastern New Mexico, with potential for a lot more hardship if President-elect Joe Biden’s administration opts to ban new leases and drilling on federal lands as promised during last year’s election campaign.

Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, said renewables won’t replace the extensive employment offered by the traditional energy industry, nor will they provide enough state revenue to offset the wealth generated by fossil fuels.

“I don’t think green energy will produce a real boom for New Mexico, nor for the nation,” Gessing told the Journal. “I’m very concerned about our financial future. We’re racing full bore into wind and solar with government subsidies and mandates, and I don’t believe that’s a net winner for the state.”

But green energy advocates say building a non-carbon economy does open a major, novel path to economic diversification across New Mexico that can help to reduce dependence on traditional fossil fuel industries while simultaneously generating a huge number of jobs.

Cristopher Moore, a professor with the Santa Fe Institute – an interdisciplinary research center that analyzes complex issues – said New Mexico needs a “fundamental shift” in perspective. Moore is co-author of a new Institute report that offers strategies for harnessing climate action as a growth industry.

“We hear a lot of rhetoric that solving the climate crisis means holding the economy back and sacrificing jobs, but it’s completely the opposite, especially for a state like New Mexico that’s rich in renewable resources,” Moore said.

The U.S. has emerged from previous economic downturns like today’s pandemic-induced slump by building new infrastructure, Moore said. And given the immense construction needed to add transmission capacity, modernize grid technology, and build renewable generation facilities, transitioning to a green economy could provide a robust path to recovery while also laying the foundations for new, sustainable industries.

Demand, jobs

The transition to clean energy is creating immense demand across the West for renewable generation, providing opportunities for New Mexico to export wind and solar electricity to other states if the needed generation and transmission gets built.

A new report by New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, or RETA, estimates that the state’s gusty eastern plains have enough wind potential to supply about 137 gigawatts of electricity. To date, New Mexico has built less than three gigawatts of wind facilities.

RETA projects New Mexico will need to build 11.5 GW of new wind generation over the next 12 years to satisfy local and regional demand. Constructing the transmission and renewable infrastructure needed to supply that power could create and sustain up to 3,700 jobs per year over the next decade, according to the report.

The American Clean Power Association estimates New Mexico could generate nearly 14,000 new jobs over 10 years under plans to convert the grid to 50% renewables by 2030 – something the state is already pursuing and the Biden administration is expected to push nationwide. But even those estimates – contained in a new report that the association published in December – may be conservative, because the study only analyzed direct employment in the renewable industry, said John Hensley, vice president of research and analytics.

“It doesn’t cover indirect and induced jobs supported by investment in renewable infrastructure,” Hensley told the Journal. “Spending by companies in local communities supports a lot more jobs at regional businesses, including retail, restaurants, hotels and so forth.”

Construction would account for most new employment, meaning only temporary jobs as things get built. But employment would be spread out over 10 years, with more growth likely even after the nation reaches 50% renewables in 2030 and then strives to convert the entire grid to non-carbon generation, Hensley said.

“As construction finishes on one project there will be a whole pipeline of more projects down the road to move onto,” he said. “By 2030, we expect there to be more than two times more renewable jobs for every fossil fuel job that exists today.”

In addition, permanent, high-paying jobs in operation and maintenance of facilities are created with every renewable project. The new Sagamore Wind Farm, for example – a 522-megawatt facility that Xcel Energy inaugurated in Roosevelt County in December – created 25 permanent jobs.

Local pull

Meanwhile, many local organizations are now working to tap economic development and job opportunities beyond the electric industry as the state and nation embrace the broader goal of building a clean energy economy. New Mexico State University and the North American Intelligent Manufacturing Initiative, or NAIMI, are working together on a statewide initiative to help local communities – particularly the coal-heavy counties in northwestern New Mexico – take advantage of emerging green-business endeavors.

That could include an array of new products and services in everything from energy-efficiency retrofits for homes and businesses to developing new technologies for things like clean hydrogen production. It also includes efforts to attract more firms like Facebook to New Mexico that want to plug into the state’s ability to offer low-cost solar and wind generation to power facilities with 100% renewable energy, said NAIMI co-founder Fred Mondragon.

The partners hosted an online Town Hall in the summer with 150 representatives from around the state to discuss economic development, workforce training and advanced renewable energy technologies in local communities, Mondragon said.

Others are hosting similar forums to build collaborative ties among counties. The pro-renewable group Powering New Mexico, for example, facilitated an online panel in October among economic development professionals around the state to discuss ways to attract more clean energy investment in their communities.

Myra Pancrazio, executive director of the Estancia Valley Economic Development Association, told participants that wind development has helped sustain the Torrance County economy throughout the pandemic. Renewable energy company Avangrid, which already operates a 298-megawatt wind farm near Eunice, just finished construction on its new, 306-megawatt La Joya wind complex in the same area.

“When the coronavirus hit, economic development in Torrance County didn’t slow because the wind projects boosted gross receipts taxes and employment,” Pancrazio said. “We were lucky. La Joya was just breaking ground when the pandemic started, and it put a lot of people to work, with 200 to 300 construction jobs.”

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