New Mexico needs a bold energy plan for the 21st Century that aggressively moves the state from a reliance on oil and gas to fund state government and gas and coal to generate electricity. The state has the second best solar potential in the country and substantial wind capacity with a reasonable amount of geothermal potential. However, historic reliance on fossil fuels and a lack of leadership has left New Mexico trailing other states with less potential and continued the exploitive mentality of New Mexico. A leader with a vision for New Mexico’s future could change our economy. This is a plan for how to achieve a different energy future. Details will need to be worked out including legislation and constitutional changes. Without a grand plan New Mexico will continue to muddle along and not realize our potential.
First, New Mexico sits on huge untapped sustainable energy resources in the form of sun, wind, and thermal. New Mexico has the second most solar potential, seventh most wind potential, and substantial geothermal, which when coupled with some storage, requires very little other energy to meet fluctuating demand. New Mexico also has vast state trust lands that are underutilized with grazing and mining leases. ALL of the electrical needs of New Mexico can be met by covering 100 square miles with solar panels. While that may sound like a lot, it is only 10 miles by 10 miles. If it were all in one place, it would easily fit on the west mesa of Albuquerque. However, a more distributed system that sites solar fields near each metropolitan area and near existing distribution lines is more efficient, resilient, and practical. This would include covering public buildings, schools, and parking lots.
A bold plan would propose to cover 10 square miles a year for 10 years. The first portion might be sited in the Four Corners area where there is existing distribution lines both into the state and to the western markets. It would also put many of our indigenous people back to work in construction and maintenance.
A second site for subsequent years would be 25 square miles on the West Mesa of Albuquerque. The 5 mile by 5 mile site would serve the electric co-ops of northern New Mexico and the rural areas of the north west portion of the state. Additional sites would be in southwest New Mexico along the distribution lines east and west that run along I-10. In final years of the 10-year plan would be to serve the southeastern and northeastern areas. The best plan would be to build a square mile of solar for every 20,000 people in a town or community.
In total, the state would be looking at a 10-year plan to build 10 square miles each year to meet all of the electrical needs of the entire state. Building near existing distribution lines headed east and west allows for selling of excess generation to the western market for profit.
A second major component of a bold energy plan for New Mexico is to make the generation owned by the State of New Mexico, not a public/private partnership. The State of New Mexico should increase the return from State Trust Lands by building the solar facility on trust land and own the facility and the electrons generated. The State should form a municipal electric company where the generation and distribution become a state owned and operated company. The first few years of production should focus on buying out the “dirty” electrical contracts of the rural electrical co-ops and moving them to the clean New Mexico municipal electric company. The second five years should be used to move all of New Mexico residents to the statewide muni electric company.
In order to pay for a hundred square miles of solar collection and numerous wind generators, the State of New Mexico should form a State Bank to borrow from. The bank could be “seeded” with $5-10 billion from the State Permanent Fund, currently invested in Wall Street. Money for the projects would be loaned to the State for construction and paid back, with interest, from the sale of electricity to co-ops, utilities, and a state municipal electric company. Instead of investing the Permanent Fund in other states and companies, investing in New Mexico, New Mexicans, and our energy independence will help build the state. Unlike Wall Street investments that saw huge losses during the economic downturn a decade ago, electricity is relatively immune to economic declines.
Current solar costs would run about $1billion to cover 10 square miles with solar collectors. Once installed and on-line, the collectors produce energy for the next 20-30 years with very little additional cost or investments. A square mile of solar collectors will produce about $87,000,000 worth of electricity per year. The $1 billion investment in 10 square miles of collectors easily pays the loan and interest from the State Bank used to build them. With interest payments, the time t
o repay ourselves for the loan from the State Bank would be about 4-5 years with all of the profits to run state government for the life of the collectors after that. It is an investment in the future.
In addition to solar collectors on State Trust Lands, e should be building wind turbines on State Trust Lands. Wind energy peaks during the night hours while solar peaks in the afternoon. By combining some wind generation the fluctuations can be tempered. In some cases, wind turbines can be build over the solar collectors to take advantage of the distribution system and the space. Similar to the solar, the wind generation should be funded by the State Bank, and the generation and electrons owned by the State for the good of the State with a municipal electric company.
Adding some geothermal production also helps to level the generation to meet demand. Storage systems are rapidly improving and utility scale storage is now available. In the last few weeks, Elon Musk of Tesla fame announce the utility scale battery system in Australia that can store energy for 30,000 homes with a battery the size of a football field. Some storage allows for balancing base load that fluctuates with sustainable wind and solar. However, it may be needed to occasionally draw some power from the western grid when the sun isn’t shining and the winds are calm. A rare occurrence.
The economic benefits of a bold plan like this are many. First, when a state is investing in the infrastructure and it’s future, businesses and corporations want to be a part of that future. Business investments want to catch an economic boom on the up-swing when they can be a part of the increases.
Second, investments in infrastructure are almost always positive. The continued economic growth that is made possible by the investments continues into the future. Electricity generation is immune to economic downturns and building generation capacity, that does not require additional fuel costs or major maintenance like traditional power plants, continues to produce for many years after the initial investment is paid for.
Third, building, owning the generation and having a municipal electric company keeps the profits for the state of New Mexico to run state government diversifies the economy and levels the unpredictability of the fossil fuel industry.
Fourth, a major public works program puts New Mexican’s to work — lots of New Mexicans. A square mile of solar panels is more than a million panels. To do that each year for ten years requires manpower. We could put the displaced coal workers back to work. Maintenance of the collectors and the transmission lines continues to keep people employed.
Fifth, a bold plan like this changes the psychology of a state that has been exploited for generations and has struggled at the bottom of many bad lists. It provides hope and a path toward a future. It allows New Mexico to attract clean industry with low cost energy if they are clean and green enough. It puts New Mexico in the front of the world in moving toward the energy economy of the future. It says that New Mexico is moving forward and that we are open for the business of the the future.
We need to get started. Every year we wait we are losing ground and our competitive advantage. It requires bold leadership with vision. We should take control of our future and accelerate our movement toward 100% renewable by 2035.
New Mexico could do this!