aving only recently christened its biggest wind power project to date, New Mexico is poised for new investments that are primed to vault the state into a leadership position in wind energy generation. Regulatory approvals issued in October and November helped clear the way for two massive, related wind projects that will serve to more than double the large bet already placed on New Mexico by San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group.
Officials from Pattern and the state say the planned SunZia Wind facility near the federal government’s White Sands Missile Range in central New Mexico will constitute part of the largest wind project in the Western Hemisphere. The 3.5 GW wind farm, to span some 600,000 acres across Lincoln, Torrance and San Miguel counties, has spent 14 years in the planning and approvals processes, with construction — now pending only final federal approvals — set to begin mid-year.
Pattern also received right-of-way permits from the Arizona Corporation Commission related to its plans for the 550-mile, 525-kV SunZia Transmission project, which will connect the scattered SunZia wind farms to south-central Arizona, from which the electricity also can be sent farther on to California.
“SunZia Transmission,” said Pattern CEO Mike Garland in a statement, “will create a clean power superhighway for millions of Americans by opening access to huge, largely-untapped wind energy resources in New Mexico.”
SunZia Wind and SunZia Transmission, Pattern says, together will comprise the largest renewable energy infrastructure project in U.S. history, representing a combined investment of more than $8 billion and eventually producing enough power to meet the needs of some 3 million people. The projects, the company says, will create more than 2,000 construction jobs at peak and 150 permanent operations and maintenance jobs. Both undertakings, according to Pattern statements, are privately funded and will deliver more than $1 billion in tax and other economic benefits across both New Mexico and Arizona.
“SunZia,” said U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, “will ignite rural economic development across the Southwest.”
It was only last February that Pattern took the wraps off of its Western Spirit Wind project in the same region of central New Mexico as the planned SunZia farm. At 1.05 GW, the Western Spirit facility now accounts for a full 25% of the state’s installed wind capacity. As with SunZia, the Western Spirit project includes a transmission component: A 55-mile power line carries electricity to a substation near Albuquerque, from which it is delivered to renewables-hungry markets in California, including Los Angeles and San Jose.
As with the SunZia projects, Western Spirit endured more than a decade of regulatory hurdles, a fact bemoaned by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham at a February 2022 dedication ceremony. Similar obstacles have served to bottleneck wind and solar projects in other states.
“Developers like Pattern know how to site, develop and finance projects, but building them boils down to permission to move forward,” Fernando Martinez, director of New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA) told the Albuquerque Journal. “We don’t want to cut corners,” Martinez said, “but streamlining the process is the only way to allow the massive development of renewable energy needed to meet climate goals.”
The 550-mile SunZia Transmission project is to link wind farms in New Mexico to Arizona.
Source: Pattern Energy Group
RETA in 2021 entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Invenergy Wind Development North America, which hopes to build a 400-mile high voltage transmission line with the capacity to support some 4 GW of wind energy development across northern New Mexico. In a report issued in May, state officials valued New Mexico’s untapped renewable energy resources at $11 billion.
Universities Get on Board
On a smaller scale than such massive utility projects, but with impacts that touch virtually every corner of the country, colleges and universities of all sizes are leading by example on renewables. Last March, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, began receiving power from its second solar generating plant, an 88-MW installation south of Fresno, thus completing the institution’s transition to 100% renewable electricity. Recurrent Energy, a subsidiary of Canadian Solar, developed and operates the facility. Stanford has a 2050 goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions on campus and, beginning in 2009, has overhauled its entire energy system to meet it.
In November, construction commenced on a 20-MW solar farm near Pittsburgh International Airport that will be a key component of the University of Pittsburgh’s goals of meeting 50% of its electrical needs through renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2037. The project is being constructed on 68 acres in Allegheny and Beaver Counties by Texas-based Vesper Energy, with the university having secured 100% of its output for the next 20 years.
“Directly purchasing clean electricity will generate long-term cost and environmental savings, require no upfront capital or maintenance costs for the university and give Pitt price certainty throughout the contract,” the school said in a statement.
More than 40 colleges and universities have gone 100% renewable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership. Top users of green energy, according to the Partnership, include the Universities of California and Iowa, Arizona State, the University at Buffalo, Boston University and Stanford. As of October 24, 2022, the combined annual green power use of the EPA’s Top 30 College & University Partners amounts to more than 3.8 billion kilowatt-hours of green power.
Manufacturing Poised to Soar
Buoyed by last summer’s passage of the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which directs nearly $400 billion in federal funding to clean energy, the nation’s top solar trade association released an ambitious roadmap to boost America’s solar manufacturing sector. The congressional Joint Committee of Taxation estimates that the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act, contained within IRA, will pour $30 billion into solar manufacturing over the coming decade through a series of tax credits.
“For the first time, the United States has an industrial policy in place that will usher in a new era of clean energy manufacturing,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
SEIA’s roadmap, released in August, charts a path toward achieving a target of 50 GW of annual solar manufacturing capacity by 2030. As of mid-year, the U.S. was on target for about 10 GW for 2022. The paper emphasizes that domestic manufacturing can grow in the near term as the IRA “dramatically scales up demand for solar and storage products.”
Arizona-based First Solar plans to scale its American manufacturing footprint to more than 10 GW by 2025. In November, the company announced plans to invest $1.1 billion in a solar module manufacturing facility in northern Alabama’s Lawrence County. Expected to be commissioned in 2025, the project is to create more than 700 jobs. It will join three First Solar facilities in Ohio, including a new one coming online in 2023.
Prior to the IRA’s passage, Hanwha Q Cells announced a major expansion of its facility in Dalton, Georgia, already the nation’s most prolific producer of solar panels. The $171 million expansion is to create more than 500 jobs and to boost production at the facility to 3.1 GW.
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.