NM wind project of historic size nearly complete

Renewable power developer Pattern Energy is nearing completion of a mammoth wind project in east central New Mexico that, once fully operational in December, will constitute the largest single-phase renewable energy build-out in U.S. history.

The company broke ground last December on its Western Spirit project, which includes four wind farms with 1,050 megawatts of joint generating capacity, plus a new, 155-mile transmission line that will carry the electricity from New Mexico’s gusty eastern plains to California markets.

At more than 1 gigawatt, the Western Spirit farms will be twice the size of Xcel Energy’s 522-MW Sagamore Wind Farm in Roosevelt County, which was pegged as the state’s largest wind facility when it came online last December. Likewise, the new Western Spirit transmission line is the biggest such project to be constructed in New Mexico in 35 years.

To be sure, there are bigger renewable-generation facilities currently operating in the country, said Pattern Energy spokesman Matt Dallas.

“But those other facilities were all built in stages over time,” Dallas said. “Our project is the largest one getting built all at once in U.S. history.”

In general, although electric consumption varies by state and size of homes, 1,050 mW of generating capacity can provide enough electricity to meet the needs of roughly 365,000 homes, Dallas said.

Nearly all the electricity will be sold to California utilities under long-term power purchase agreements, or PPAs. That includes the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the city of San Jose in Northern California.

Construction is nearly complete on the Western Spirit wind project in east-Central New Mexico. The project- which includes four wind farms that will generate more than a gigawatt of electricity and a new transmission line -is expected to come online in December. (Courtesy of Pattern Energy)

The company also signed a 15-year PPA last May with Uniper North America, which will buy up to 219,000 mW hours of electricity annually, or enough to power about 20,000 homes per year. Uniper North America – a Chicago-based subsidiary of the European company Uniper – will sell most of the electricity to end users in New Mexico.

Both the transmission line and the wind farms are now about two-thirds complete, said Jeremy Turner, Pattern’s New Mexico project development director. The transmission line will be finished by November, and the wind farms will be fully commissioned by the end of December.

“We’re about 90% complete with constructing all the transmission foundations, and about 70% of the transmission structures themselves,” Turner told the Journal. “… Most of the (wind farm) turbines are now installed as well. We have less than 70 to go out of a total of 377 turbines.”

Pattern is investing nearly $1.8 billion in the project. It’s employed more than 1,000 construction workers since last year. And once operational, the transmission line and the wind farms together will provide about 100 permanent jobs.

Project operations will also bring significant revenue to the state, and to local governments, schools districts and landowners. That includes:

• $36 million in property taxes from the transmission line operations over 40 years

• $3 million per year in payments from just the wind-farm operations for local government and school districts in Guadalupe, Lincoln and Torrance counties over the life of those facilities

• $426 million in land-lease payments to local landowners from both the transmission line and wind farms

Pattern executives discussed the Western Spirit project and the potential for building more transmission lines and wind farms in New Mexico with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who visited the state in mid-August. While in Albuquerque, Granholm held a roundtable discussion with Pattern, and with other local industry representatives and public officials to learn about the challenges facing renewable energy development here.

Participants told Granholm that a lot more transmission construction is needed for private developers like Pattern to tap into the immense wind potential offered by New Mexico’s eastern plains.

“We have vast renewable energy resources, but we can’t access them without the transmission,” said Fernando Martinez, executive director of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority.

RETA is a quasi-governmental agency established under former Gov. Bill Richardson. It works in partnership with private developers to build transmission capacity.

RETA actually owns the rights to the Western Spirit transmission line that Pattern is now developing. Once finished, the line will be sold to Public Service Company of New Mexico to maintain and operate it.

But it took 11 years to get all federal, state and local permits in place to build Western Spirit, reflecting immense regulatory hurdles that must be streamlined going forward if the U.S. plans to convert the national electric grid to 100% non-carbon generation by 2035 as proposed by President Joe Biden, said RETA Chairman Bob Busch.

“Eleven years is too long,” Busch told Granholm. “… If we want more transmission to enable renewables, we have to find ways to get the approvals done much faster.”

Pattern itself is planning to invest $2 billion to $3 billion more to build out another 3 GW of local wind farms after the Western Spirit project is complete. But those plans depend on the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a massive, 520-mile line that, if built, could carry up to 4.5 GW of electricity from Central New Mexico to Arizona for export to Western markets.

SunZia, however, has been tied up for 15 years in permitting red tape.

“The problem is not figuring out where to build high-voltage transmission lines,” Busch told Granholm. “We know where to build, and even financing isn’t a problem. It’s about one thing – getting the needed permission to site and build it.”

Apart from streamlining regulatory processes, an investment tax credit is also key for driving more transmission development in New Mexico and elsewhere, said Pattern CEO Mike Garland.

That’s something U.S. legislators are now considering in congressional discussions on Biden’s infrastructure investment plans, which could incorporate transmission incentives as part of $300 billion in new renewable energy tax breaks.

“We have big plans to continue here in New Mexico,” Garland told Granholm. “… But we have to have transmission, and investment tax credits are a critical piece of that.”

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.

 

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