Imagine, 20 years down the road, a New Mexico flush with prosperity. We’re talking close to 25,000 new jobs%uFFFDnearly twice what the federal stimulus package is expected to produce over its life span%uFFFDand as much as $79 million in tax revenue. We’re talking an interconnected power grid stretching from Artesia to Shiprock, delivering thousands of megawatts of solar and wind power to New Mexico and beyond, all contributing to $10 billion in clean energy development projects.
All that’s needed to make it happen is a cool $1.3 billion%uFFFDand that, of course, is the hard part.
These big ideas may sound like the pipe dreams of a clean-energy zealot. In fact, they're the findings of an Oct. 18 study by engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Jeremy Turner, executive director of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority%uFFFDthe quasi-governmental agency that commissioned the report%uFFFDsays it’s the first step toward overhauling the state’s power system.
"This is all very conceptual," Turner tells SFR. "We believe we have significant opportunities in renewable energy. This is the basis and the beginning of starting to establish our ability to be a major player."
The 49-page report is technical, but its main idea is simple: to create a plan for upgrading and adding infrastructure so that New Mexico can handle a lot more power.
“We need to start building transmission [lines] to get out to where the wind is generated, bring it into the main grid and then export it to larger markets in California, Arizona and Nevada,” Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks explains. To that end, both plans also suggest turning the northwest region of the state into a renewable energy export hub.
Even though LANL’s estimate of New Mexico’s renewable energy potential%uFFFD5,200 megawatts, according to the report%uFFFDis significantly lower than what other studies have found, it’s still enough to power every household in New Mexico, and then some. On top of that, US Census estimates put New Mexico’s projected population growth significantly lower than that of its neighbors%uFFFDmost notably Arizona and California, which Marks says are the most promising markets for New Mexico-generated wind power.
But while the LANL study also calls for a renewable energy "export hub" in the northwest corner of the state, Marks says New Mexico's export potential should be explored further.
"The solution to our energy challenges is regional," he says, "and involves transmission from the states with the most potential to the states with the [demand]."
Monte Ogdahl, president of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, argues for an even broader focus: a unified national grid that connects with each state.
"The problem with our power structures throughout the US is that we have different areas that have been developed by the power companies to make it work for their area," Ogdahl says. "Then, as the system has become more of a nationwide system, they've patched together these areas so there's patches all over the place."
According to Ogdahl, the technology to transport renewable energy on a national scale already exists. Now, he says, "It needs to have a national smart grid that then coordinates with the state."
The idea of a “smart grid”%uFFFDwhich both US Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, support%uFFFDis by any estimation a far larger undertaking.
But even on a smaller scale, redesigning the way energy flows is expensive.
Both Turner and Marks list bond issues and public-private partnerships with renewable energy investors as potential funding sources%uFFFDbut a portion, Marks says, could trickle down to utility customers in the form of a rate hike or surcharge.
Given this year’s controversy over proposed PNM rate hikes, that’s likely to be unpopular locally%uFFFDbut if most of that energy is exported, it could fall instead on consumers in other states.
Either way, Marks says, “It’s an investment in our future, and the stuff we build now will be stuff our kids are really happy to have on the grid. [But] we need to be honest about it and look real carefully at what economic development is worth.”