Sunday, October 25, 2009
N.M. Attracting Wind Farms; Newest One With 40-Story Turbines
By Michael Hartranft
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal Journal Staff Writer
It's still an hour's drive when the silvery white machines first appear on a distant mesa, their three-bladed rotors in steady motion.
Stretched across five miles of the rugged Mesa de los Jumanos east of Mountainair and south of Willard in rural Torrance County, they are the engines that comprise the state's newest commercial-scale wind energy farm.
Nearly 40 stories tall from base to blade tips, they are among the biggest land-based wind turbines in North America.
The High Lonesome Mesa project is a $190 million complex of 40 wind machines that can kick out 100 megawatts of electricity. Developed by the California-based Edison Mission Group along with Foresight Wind Energy and its local partner Karbon Zero, the project went into operation July 16.
The power generated at High Lonesome Mesa — named after a pasture atop the mesa — isn't intended for New Mexicans. All of it, enough to serve 24,000 homes, has been sold to the Arizona Public Service, accounting for more than half of the wind component of that utility's renewable energy portfolio.
High Lonesome, though, will make major contributions to the state of New Mexico and local economies — to the tune of $24 million in taxes and fees that will be paid over the 30-year life of the project. That includes $14 million in payments in lieu of taxes to Torrance County and the Estancia School District. This year's payment is a combined $325,000 and that will grow in the future.
"It's the county's first wind farm, our first industrial revenue bond, our first negotiating process," County Manager Joy Ansley said. "We've learned a lot and hope there are more to come. I think basically it's a successful project."
Taking about a year to construct, High Lonesome also created more than 200 construction jobs and for a time at least, new business for local suppliers, eateries, motels and grocery stores.
"I think it's beneficial in every way, in my opinion," said Lowell Goemmer, who lives about four miles away and is leasing about 4,000 acres of his sprawling ranch to Edison. "It's creating a tax base, it's good clean energy using the wind. I think there are a lot of benefits to it."
Biggest in output
High Lonesome is not the state's biggest wind project — that honor still belongs to the 204-megawatt New Mexico Wind Energy Center, which opened in 2003 near Fort Sumner and sells all of its power to Public Service Company of New Mexico.
But in terms of individual output, the turbines at High Lonesome are among largest, most powerful land-based wind machines in America with each unit capable of producing 2.5 megawatts. An Edison wind project in Nebraska features 3-megawatt, slightly taller turbines built by Vestas.
The project gives the state five wind farms categorized as utility scale, having enough generating capacity to be commercially viable, according to Michael McDiarmid, who is the wind power program manager in the state's Energy Conservation and Management Division. The others are the New Mexico Wind Energy Center in Quay and DeBaca counties, the Caprock Wind Ranch in Quay County, the Aragonne Mesa project in Guadalupe County and the San Juan Mesa project in Roosevelt County.
From the launch of the state's first wind project, the .66 megawatt Llano Escatado Wind Ranch at Texico in 1999, New Mexico now has a total of 597 megawatts of installed power capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association third quarter report released this month. In that category, New Mexico ranks 14th in the United States.
But when it comes to the amount of wind power generated relative to electricity consumed in New Mexico, the state ranks No. 1, McDiarmid said.
"The wind energy generated divided by the electricity consumed gives you about 6 percent," he said. "That's the figure the number ranking is based on. Texas has far more installed megawatts and California has far more, but it's a lower percentage of their retail sales."
Awe-inspiring from a distance, the wind turbines up close at High Lonesome Mesa are flat-out imposing.
Built by another California company, Clipper Windpower, each unit measures almost 425 feet from base to blade tip, according to High Lonesome operations manager Jeremy Johnson. The rotor has a diameter of 314 feet, with each blade weighing about 30,000 pounds. Maintenance crews use a service elevator inside the tower to reach the work platform in the hub, about 300 feet above the ground.
"You can hear it within a couple hundred yards," Goemmer said. "It's a little hum, but it doesn't travel very far."
In fact, he said his cattle commonly graze in the shadows of the turbines, apparently oblivious to the sights and sounds.
Johnson said there wasn't much wildlife to be found on the mesa during construction, but that's changing.
"I was told they saw some (Dahl) sheep up here. There quite a few mule deer and a mountain lion down south of here," he said. "We're starting to see a lot more wildlife."
To help move the project along, Torrance County approved a $190 million industrial revenue bond for the project, granting the development group a 30-year property tax abatement on improvements, according to Ansley.
"They found their own bonding and the county did not have to front the bonds on anything," she said.
The developers, in turn, agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes to the county and Estancia School District, with 54 percent going to the county and 46 percent to the district. For 10 years, the county will receive $175,500, the district $149,500. For the following 10 years, the county and the district will split $500,000 a year, then $600,000 a year for the final 10 years of the agreement.
County Commissioner Vanessa Chavez-Gutierrez said the county also wanted as many county residents as possible employed during construction.
Creating construction, other jobs
"They hired a lot of drivers, and lots of electrical contractors were working out there," she said. "They also used a lot of local providers — crushed gravel out of Mountainair, the groceries, the motels in Mountainair. Even a local restaurant took food out there daily and set up a trailer."
As a rule, wind farms are not large employers once they're built and High Lonesome Mesa is no exception. It will eventually have a crew of eight technicians and two administrative staffers, according to Johnson.
"It's all technology driven," Edison spokeswoman Susan Olavarria said. "All you need to run a facility like this is an operations manager and technicians to fix it if it breaks down."
Edison constructed a 14-mile transmission line that carries the power generated at High Lonesome Mesa to a substation at Willard, Johnson said. From there, it's routed via the PNM transmission grid — Edison pays a transmission fee to PNM — to the Four Corners area, then made available to Arizona Public Service, Arizona's largest electric utility.
The Arizona company also purchases all of the electricity generated by the 90-megawatt Aragonne Mesa wind project developed by Babcock & Brown, which went into operation in late 2006 southwest of Santa Rosa.
"Which is what we want to do in New Mexico," McDiarmid said. "One of our major goals is to be an exporter of clean energy."
It's the second New Mexico wind venture for Edison, which is the majority owner of the 120-megawatt San Juan Mesa project southwest of Portales that provides power for Southwestern Public Service to serve the eastern part of the state and Texas. A subsidiary of Edison International, Edison has a total of 25 wind projects in nine states.
More on the horizon
"I can't speak to other projects we may have in the pipeline, but we are actively looking at other opportunities there (in New Mexico) now, plus others across the country," Olavarria said.
McDiarmid said a number of other wind energy projects are planned for New Mexico. One of the biggest is the 120-megawatt Owaissa wind ranch proposed in Union and Harding counties in northeastern New Mexico.
PNM is also expected to announce plans for a new wind farm in the 90-megawatt range when it refiles parts of its renewable energy procurement plan later this year. The company declined to release details at this time.
From a practical standpoint, though, the state is approaching a limit — "I think several more large projects," McDiarmid said — on what the transmission systems can handle, he said.
"At this point, there are some private consortiums working a couple of large projects," he said. "They're trying to figure out the feasibility studies, who're going to contribute to pay for development of the project — all that kind of business planning."
One of the projects, the SunZia, would connect east central New Mexico to east central Arizona. The other, the High Plains Express, is planned to extend from Wyoming through eastern Colorado to east central New Mexico.
State lawmakers engaged the state in the process by creating the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority.
"We'd like to transmit a lot more wind power out of state to central Arizona and Southern Colorado," McDiarmid said. "That's where the markets are."