Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s largest electric utility is breaking ground on a 50-megawatt solar field that will provide power to Western New Mexico University, the city of Albuquerque and other large users that have signed on to a new program officials hope will serve as a model for boosting access to renewable energy.
As the third largest solar project on tribal land in the U.S., the array will be capable of producing enough electricity to power the equivalent of about 16,000 average homes for a year.
Tribal officials gathered on the plains of the Jicarilla Apache Nation for a ceremony as others joined Thursday’s virtual watch party. Nearly a square mile of sagebrush and grassland will be cleared for the new solar field, which will provide 2 megawatts of electricity to the tribe as part of the partnership with Public Service Co. of New Mexico.
Jicarilla Apache President Edward Velarde said the project marks the next step for the tribe, as it already has its own utility authority and has built a transmission line and substation that links the community to the grid.
“With the nation’s forward thinking and exercise of self-determination, it has enabled us to enter the renewable energy market,” Velarde said.
Public Service Co. of New Mexico said its Solar Direct program offers municipalities, educational institutions and other large users a cost-effective way to meet their renewable energy goals and carbon reduction mandates while avoiding the expense of building and maintaining individual solar sites on their own properties.
The program allows large customers to subscribe to receive electricity matching their usage at a set price from the solar facility. Customers must commit to purchase the requested amount of electricity for 15 years. They’ll receive a credit on their bills based on their subscription levels.
Any customers that use 2.5 megawatts or more are eligible for the program.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the electricity from the new venture will power over 50 percent of city government and will mark a big step toward the municipality reaching its 100 percent renewable goal over the next decade. Other sources come from solar panels that have been installed on fire stations, libraries and other city buildings.
Hecate Energy will build the solar plant and Public Service Co. of New Mexico will enter into a long-term agreement to purchase the power. It will not count toward state mandated renewable energy requirements.
Hecate is building two more projects on Jicarilla Apache land, including another 50-megawatt solar field and a battery storage facility that will help replace some of the lost capacity when a nearby coal-fired power plant goes offline in 2022. They also are working with El Paso Electric on projects in southern New Mexico.