Solar farm proposed south of city could power 23,300 homes in New Mexico

·4 min read

Aug. 9—A different kind of harvest could be coming to Santa Fe County by way of a new solar farm being proposed just south of the city.

AES Corporation, an energy company based in Arlington County, Va., is working to build the solar farm on 800 acres of privately owned land off N.M. 14. If it receives the necessary approvals, the Rancho Viejo Solar facility would be the largest in Santa Fe County and one of the larger facilities in a state that hopes to cut away at its greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.

The energy siphoned from the panels would be able to power some 23,300 New Mexico homes, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculations.

"We are really excited about the opportunity to help New Mexico reach its renewable energy goals," Rebecca Halford, AES manager of stakeholder relations, said late last week. "We are here to assist that goal and be a great partner within the community and within the state."

The project, one of a handful on the Public Service Company of New Mexico's shortlist of viable renewable energy projects, would have to be approved by PNM and Santa Fe County commissioners via a conditional use permit.

Many of the details from the project were discussed at a community open house at Turquoise Trail Charter School last week. The meeting was required by the county as part of its application process.

Halford said the project — the cost of which was not disclosed — is expected to result in about $7 million in tax revenue and payments to the county.

The prospective site of the farm is in Commission District 3, represented by outgoing Commissioner Rudy Garcia, who could not be reached for comment.

Commission Chairwoman Anna Hamilton said she had yet to review the project but said she "in general, is in favor of supporting and encouraging community solar, and the county has passed resolutions supporting renewable energy."

The 2019 Energy Transition Act sets the energy policy for the state to transition to a carbon-free grid by 2045, but PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said the utility hopes to reach that mark five years ahead of that timeline.

PNM currently has about 15 solar projects in various stages of development. Seven are commercially operating, ranging from 10 to 300 megawatts, Sandoval said.

Just last month, the utility flipped the switch on a 49.5-megawatt solar panel farm to supply energy to a Facebook data center in Los Lunas.

Halford said Rancho Viejo will consist of about 20,500 solar panels, and the power — 96 megawatts — would be fed into PNM's power grid and be made available to its customers. According to EPA calculations, the project would reduce carbon emissions by 19,000 tons, equivalent to the emissions of 26,000 gas-powered cars each year.

The site also is adjacent to PNM power lines and would be required to be set back at least 1,000 feet away from the nearest residence.

Halford said the AES team is still working on technical adjustments to ensure the project receives approval from both the county and the state, adding its dimensions could change by the time the final approval is given.

Halford expects construction to begin sometime between late 2024 and early 2025.

"We feel like this is a very strong project and we are continuing with the development process as we are waiting for a final decision from PNM," she said.

The project still has its challenges.

The San Marcos Neighborhood Association is the closest to the project and has raised concerns it would not only affect views but also disturb wildlife and cause other issues. Officials with the group could not be reached for comment.

Residents also have submitted comments questioning whether the panel material could impact the local environment or how they would be cleaned.

According to the company's website, AES uses "tier 1" crystalline-silicon solar modules, which are largely made of glass, aluminum, copper, silicon and other commonly used plastics and wires. The panel materials are considered "solid state," meaning there are no liquid or gas components.

"Solar panels are safe," Halford said. "They are solid materials, and there is no risk of any type of chemical impacting the surrounding area."

Halford said AES is working its way through a number of environmental studies, some of which will be returned later this month with the next steps of pulling the application together to present to county commissioners.