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Blow Hard

New Mexico has plenty of wind to sell, but how will it get there from here?

March 17, 2010, 12:00 am

Slicing across the eastern Plains, Interstate 40 runs just north of two of New Mexico’s large wind farms. As dramatic as those stands of spinning turbines might seem, the view from the highway offers little in the way of true perspective.

Gaining an appreciation of their girth—and that quiet rush of physical power—takes pulling off the highway, winding down back roads. Only when standing close beneath a turbine is it possible to understand the immensity of those swinging blades.

A modern turbine’s tower is enormous—big enough to house computer equipment and for technicians to climb inside to the nacelle, the square component at the top that houses the gear box, generator and control panels. There at the hub, the three 110-foot-long blades meet. There’s also a door for technicians to exit toward the electrical components outside—outside at approximately 265 feet up in the air. And at the very top is an anemometer collecting the data that guides the hub to turn so the blades can best catch the wind.

“It’s like a big robot,” John Hail Jr. says. Hail got his start in the wind industry at the 80-turbine wind farm in San Jon, NM, east of Tucumcari.

With a background in heavy equipment operations, Hail was working as the director of maintenance at a nursing home when he received a callback from San Jon’s wind farm supervisor.

“I’d applied for the job because it was good money—I didn’t have a clue about turbines,” he says, laughing: “But I guess it was God’s direction for me.”

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Courtesy North American Wind Research and Training Center

They might not look like much at a distance, but wind turbines are huge. The 121,916 pound nacelle of the turbine arrives at the North American Wind Research Training Center in Tucumcari (above). On the right, the hub and blades of the 1.5 megawatt wind turbine are being assembled. Each blade weighs 13,889 pounds.

Now the director of the Wind Energy Technology Program at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, Hail doesn’t romanticize the life of a wind farm technician: The work is physically demanding, but “we love our jobs, and they pay good money.” Work in renewable energy and on wind farms, in particular, he says, is the “next gold rush, the next oil boom.”

Hail isn’t alone in believing clean energy like wind power could, even should, be New Mexico’s biggest economic development opportunity.

Gov. Bill Richardson for many years has declared New Mexico the “clean energy state” and called for the export of electricity generated from renewable sources to large markets such as California.

Sounds good. But behind the hype, talk to any expert about future wind development in the state and it becomes clear there is one major problem:

Transmission lines are already at capacity.

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