Down a long stretch of dirt road south of Santa Fe city limits, in an area off Interstate 25 otherwise populated by mobile home communities and vacant billboards, a field of nearly 40,000 solar panels appears like a mechanical mirage against the desert backdrop.
The 472 rows of photovoltaic panels stand just under 10 feet high and represent the latest addition to the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s renewable energy portfolio, which now includes 15 solar facilities throughout the state. Since ground broke in May on the Santa Fe County Solar Energy Center, nearly 300 workers helped erect this vast array at a cost of $20 million.
“I have a book on my shelf called the Existential Pleasure of Engineering,” said Pat O’Connell, director of resource planning for PNM. “After years of studying, planning, going through the PRC-approval process, being able to come out and actually experience what the fruit of all that work is, is really rewarding.”
The solar center is part of the utility’s much debated and critiqued energy portfolio, 15 percent of which is required by the state to be derived from renewable sources. In December, the state Public Regulation Commission approved PNM’s plan to close two of four coal-burning units at the aging San Juan Generating Station near Farmington and replace that power with energy from nuclear and natural gas plants, additional coal power and some solar energy.
PNM worked with Santa Fe County to secure the stretch of land tucked between the National Guard headquarters and the Penitentiary of New Mexico. The property was chosen for its level surface and proximity to PNM’s distribution system. The solar array will pump out 9.5 megawatts a year, enough to provide power for nearly 4,000 customers.
On Thursday afternoon, more than 80 people gathered in a small, heated tent on the edge of the solar panel plantation for a dedication ceremony, the third dedication PNM has held this month.
The event was attended by Las Vegas, N.M., Mayor Alfonso Ortiz; Santa Fe County Commissioner Kathy Holian; a representative for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico; and dozens of PNM employees.
Speakers at the ceremony talked about the importance of a partnership between the county, local businesses and the utility. They also focused on the urgency of addressing climate change through renewable energy.
City Councilor Peter Ives said he wants solar power to help the state reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2040.
“[Last year] was not just a little warmer than 2014, it was way warmer,” Holian said. “It is extremely important for us to invest as much as we can in renewable energy as we go forward. … I truly hope that this is a beginning.”
Gary Barnard, director of renewable energy development for PNM Resources Inc., the parent company of PNM, said the company is moving forward on a project to bring an additional 50 MW of solar power on line, which would be spread out across five properties in Valencia, Bernalillo and Las Vegas.