Massive solar array is planned for West Side

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Idaho-based solar developer Clenera LLC plans to build one of the state’s largest solar generating facilities to date on the West Side of Albuquerque and is asking for $430 million in industrial revenue bonds from Bernalillo County to move forward with the project.

Clenera is planning a 300-megawatt solar farm on private land about 10 miles northwest of city limits, plus a 150-megawatt back-up battery storage system on the same site that can provide electricity for up to four hours when the sun isn’t shining. All electricity generated by the complex, scheduled to come online in June 2023, would be sold to Public Service Company of New Mexico under a power purchase agreement PNM and Clenera signed early this year.

The solar and battery projects, called Atrisco Solar LLC and Atrisco Energy Storage LLC, are part of a total of 450 MW of new solar generation and 290 MW of back-up battery storage that PNM has contracted for to replace 114 MW of electricity it currently receives from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona. PNM is giving up leases it maintains for electricity from two of Palo Verde’s three generating units, although it will continue to directly own 288 MW of electric generation at the nuclear facility.

The state Public Regulation Commission must still approve PNM’s request to let the Palo Verde leases expire, and to allow the utility to move forward on its contracts with Clenera, and with two other companies PNM contracted to build other facilities, said PNM Vice President for Generation Tom Fallgren.

If approved by the PRC later this year, Clenera is committed to build the Atrisco facilities under the power purchasing order it already signed with PNM.

But Clenera is solely responsible for its planned $430 million investment in the project, and for the IRBs it’s now requesting from the county, Fallgren said.

“We have signed a contract that’s conditioned on PRC approval,” Fallgren told the Journal. “But PNM won’t own any of the facilities under the contract.”

Clenera, which is headquartered in Boise, is a subsidiary of Texas-based Centaurus Renewable Energy LLC, the same company that is developing another 300-MW solar facility in McKinley County called the Arroyo Solar project. Like Atrisco, the Arroyo facility will also include a four-hour, 150-MW back-up battery system to provide some of the renewable generation that’s planned to replace the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station when PNM abandons the coal plant next year.

Arroyo will become the state’s largest solar plant to date when it comes online in June 2022, followed by the Atrisco plant in June 2023.

Despite Clenera’s request for IRBs – which was part of Tuesday’s County Commission agenda but was ultimately deferred until August – company representatives told the Journal the company is not ready to discuss the Atrisco project publicly.

“Clenera doesn’t have a comment on Atrisco Solar at this time,” marketing and communications coordinator Lauren Sigler said in an email.

Apart from Atrisco, PNM signed contracts for two other solar projects to replace its Palo Verde leases. That includes the 150-MW Jicarilla Solar Energy Facility – to be accompanied by 40 MW of four-hour back-up battery storage – plus a 100-MW stand-alone battery storage project called the Sandia Peak Grid that can provide up to two hours of electricity.

The Atrisco project is aimed at directly replacing lost power from Palo Verde. The other projects, however, are aimed at increasing the reserve margin of available electric capacity PNM maintains on its grid, Fallgren said. That’s critical, because the utility is replacing the around-the-clock, 24/7 power it receives from Palo Verde with intermittent solar generation and back-up battery storage.

Although battery storage is being widely adopted by utilities across the country, it’s still a relatively new technology that PNM is only now integrating into its grid for the first time.

PNM decided not to propose any new “baseload,” 24/7 power like natural gas generation to the PRC as replacement for Palo Verde to pursue mandates under the state’s Energy Transition Act, which requires all local public utilities to transition their grids to 50% renewables by 2030, 80% by 2040, and 100% non-carbon generation by 2045.

PNM could propose more natural gas in the future, but it decided not to at this time, Fallgren said.

“Palo Verde provides carbon-free generation,” he said. “So we modeled the replacement resources in concurrence with no new carbon resources.”

The Atrisco project alone will offset about 1.3 billion pounds of carbon emissions annually, according to the project description prepared for the Bernalillo County Commission. That equates to using about 68 million gallons of gasoline annually.

In addition, PNM says ending its Palo Verde leases and replacing that electricity with low-cost solar generation and battery storage will save ratepayers between $22 million and $55 million over the next 20 years.

According to Bernalillo County documents, the Atrisco project would directly create five permanent jobs and generate 327 construction jobs.

Should the County Commission approve the IRBs, the company, not the county, would be responsible for repaying the bonds. However, the arrangement includes tax breaks.

The company would get $29.3 million worth of personal property tax exemptions over the course of 30 years, but pay $25.7 million to the county in lieu of taxes for a net incentive of about $3.6 million, according to the county.

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