NM wind project creating the ‘Route 66 of renewable energy’ - Albuquerque Journal

NM wind project creating the ‘Route 66 of renewable energy’

Pattern Energy has installed hundreds of wind turbines in four sites around Corona. Together, they can generate more than a gigawatt of electricity, which the company will sell to utilities in California. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Guadalupe, Lincoln and Torrance counties are now collectively supporting the electricity needs of nearly 1 million people through a massive new wind farm and transmission line in central New Mexico.

Pattern Energy officially dedicated its Western Spirit wind project in late February after more than a decade of development. The project includes four sprawling wind farms with a total of 377 turbines scattered throughout the three counties.

Together, they can generate more than a gigawatt of electricity, which Pattern Energy will sell to utilities in California.

That’s enough power to supply some 365,000 homes, or nearly a million people, said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during the dedication ceremony on Feb. 24 in Corona, attended by public officials, and industry representatives from New Mexico and California.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks at a celebration of the opening of Pattern Energy’s new Western Spirit wind project near Corona on Feb. 23. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

That’s the equivalent of nearly one half of New Mexico’s total population, Lujan Grisham told participants.

“We’re celebrating a monumental occasion,” the governor said. “It shows the success of our efforts to grow reliable, renewable power, and to partner with industry and other states to export the natural resources we have here in abundance.”

At 1,050 megawatts, Western Spirit is more than twice the size of Xcel Energy’s 522 MW Sagamore Wind Farm in Roosevelt County, until now the state’s largest wind facility.

The project also includes the largest new transmission project built in New Mexico since the 1980s — a 155-mile line that will carry electricity from Western Spirit turbines to a Public Service Company of New Mexico substation west of Albuquerque. From there, the power will flow to California markets through existing transmission infrastructure.

That new transmission capacity could represent a turning point in building the state’s clean power industry, since it’s the first new major transmission line dedicated solely to transporting renewable energy from rural New Mexico to heavily populated urban areas, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM. Such dedicated lines are critical to opening up the state’s vast wind and solar potential.

“We have to have the transmission,” Heinrich said. “It allows central New Mexico to export power while creating local jobs.”

Indeed, more transmission development would open the gates to a lot more renewable development, starting with a massive expansion of Pattern Energy’s wind farm construction in and around Corona in Lincoln County.

The company invested nearly $2 billion in its Western Spirit infrastructure. It had also spent about $1.6 billion previously on wind energy facilities near Clovis that today generate 550 MW of renewable generation for western states.

Pattern now plans to build another 3,000 MW of wind power in the Corona region, more than doubling its investments, said company CEO Mike Garland.

“We’ve already invested almost $4 billion in New Mexico to date,” Garland said at the Western Spirit dedication. “And we hope to invest another $6 billion in coming years.”

But those new commitments depend on construction of the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, a massive, 520-mile line that, if built, could carry up to 4.5 gigawatts of electricity from Central New Mexico to Arizona for sale in other states. Pattern would be the anchor tenant for the SunZia line, but that transmission project has been tied up for 15 years in permitting red tape.

Likewise, the Western Spirit line took more than a decade to achieve all needed regulatory approvals and right-of-way agreements, reflecting the single biggest hurdle for Pattern and other clean energy companies to fully tap into New Mexico’s immense wind and solar potential, said Fernando Martinez, executive director of the state’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority.

Slow regulatory process

To further open the state’s gusty eastern plains — which offer some of the best wind development capacity in the U.S. — faster permitting for transmission infrastructure is critical, Martinez told the Journal.

Cows graze near wind turbines not far from Encino on Feb. 23. A massive new wind farm and transmission line is now operating in Guadalupe, Lincoln and Torrance counties in central New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

“We need an enormous increase in transmission,” Martinez said. “We need thousands of miles of new lines in New Mexico, but it won’t be built without a change in the permitting process.”

State and federal approvals need to be streamlined, Martinez said. Government agencies need clearly defined deadlines that span months rather than years to review issues, consider public input and resolve potential opposition to projects. They also need to scale up staffing and resources, with incentives to do things faster.

“Developers like Pattern know how to site, develop and finance projects, but building them boils down to permission to move forward,” Martinez said. “We don’t want to cut corners — we need to meet all state and federal laws and standards — but streamlining the process is the only way to allow the massive development of renewable energy needed to meet climate goals.”

SunZia is advancing through the federal permitting process, with a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expected this spring.

But opposition from local communities and conservation groups concerned about SunZia’s impact on cultural sites and wildlife along the Rio Grande have bogged that process down in the past. And it remains to be seen how fast BLM proceedings will advance this time.

“If all goes well with the BLM’s current timeline, we could see SunZia get approval to move forward late this year or in early 2023,” Martinez said. “That would allow the first phase of the SunZia project to come online by 2025.”

Unlike SunZia, which would cross a lot of federal land, Western Spirit straddles only private property and state lands, reducing the regulatory hurdles it faced. But even so, it took more than 10 years to get approval, and that’s too long, said Gov. Lujan Grisham.

New Mexico needs to accelerate the process and set an example for other places, she said.

“These kinds of projects can no longer take a decade,” the governor told dedication participants. “We can pave the way for the U.S. and the rest of the world, showcasing how to get things done.”

Huge benefits

Apart from Pattern, more companies want to work with the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority to pursue transmission construction and wind development in New Mexico, Martinez said.

Transmission developer Invenergy, for example, has signed a memorandum of understanding with RETA to build a “New Mexico North Path” transmission line to run from northeastern New Mexico to the Four Corners, potentially paving the way for another 4,000 megawatts of wind development on the state’s northeastern plains.

For now, however, most attention is focused on Pattern Energy, whose current and future development plans could turn the Corona region into a wind energy mecca for New Mexico and the West.

“Corona will be the future of the state’s wind industry,” Sen. Heinrich said. “It’s at the heart of New Mexico’s wind leadership. … With SunZia, if we can pull that off, we can have 4 gigawatts of wind generation there — the equivalent of four nuclear power plants (of electric generation) coming out of New Mexico.”

Pattern’s projects are already generating substantial benefits for land owners, and local and state government. Property owners will earn $426 million in land-lease payments for the Western Spirit wind farms and transmission line over the life of those projects, according to Pattern. That includes $16 million for the State Land Office.

In addition, local government and school districts in Guadalupe, Torrance and Lincoln counties will earn a combined $3 million per year in taxes, or $90 million over 30 years.

“The Western Spirit project alone will increase the budgets of those three counties by about 10%,” Pattern CEO Mike Garland said.

The yearlong transmission and wind farm construction employed 1,100 people, followed by 50 permanent positions now.

And the new transmission line helps reinforce PNM’s grid. The utility acquired the line for $285 million in December with no cost to PNM ratepayers, because Pattern will earn back its investment through credits when using the line.

For PNM, it provides additional transmission capacity when Pattern isn’t fully occupying the line, while also providing an alternative route to keep electricity flowing in case of a transmission outage elsewhere on the grid, said PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval.

Western Spirit now accounts for one-fourth of the total 4,235 MW of wind-generating capacity currently installed throughout New Mexico at some two dozen facilities. In fact, the project boosted New Mexico to fifth place among all U.S. states in new renewable generation brought online last year, according to the American Clean Power Association’s year-end national report, released in February.

The new Route 66

Western Spirit has elevated New Mexico’s position as a key renewable energy supplier for California and other western states.

From left, Roman Garcia, mayor of Vaughn; Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, and Mike Garland, CEO of Pattern Energy, talk at the Feb. 23 dedication of Pattern Energy’s new Western Spirit Wind project in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

A small part of the wind energy will be used in New Mexico through Uniper North America, which will purchase up to 219,000 megawatt hours per year of electricity, enough to power about 20,000 homes, most of which to be sold to local customers.

But the vast majority will flow to California utilities, including the city of San Jose, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. LADWP will receive 331 MW, or one-third of Western Spirit generation, accounting for 6% of that city’s current renewable portfolio.

“Bringing this state-of-the-art facility online makes it our largest wind project to date — providing clean energy for hundreds of thousands of Angelenos and bringing us one major step closer to becoming a city powered without fossil fuels,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who attended the dedication.

LADWP General Manager Martin Adams called it a “fantastic marriage” that directly connects Los Angeles with rural New Mexico.

“It’s exporting energy west and importing jobs east,” Adams told dedication participants.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM, suggested renaming Western Spirit the “Route 66 of renewable energy.”

“The old Route 66 took visitors to L.A.,” Leger Fernández said. “This new project will now take renewable energy to that city.”

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