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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

Even without the question of transmission, it can take a long time to develop a wind farm, from conception to actually building one can last five to 10 years, according to Jeremy Lewis, a clean energy specialist with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Energy Conservation and Management Division, who also coordinates the state’s Wind Working Group.

Tall and thin, with a commuter’s bike propped up against his office wall, Lewis is a former Peace Corps and AmeriCorps worker who focuses on everything from solar tax credits to clean fuels.

“It’s tricky,” he says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘It would be great to put a wind farm here,’ but it’s another thing to actually do it. It’s very complicated and there are a lot of policy and legal issues.”

The role of the working group is to bring together various stakeholders, ranging from lawyers, government representatives and large-scale developers to local business owners, regional planning organizations and concerned community members.

Phillip Box is one such community member: He’s a rancher and the board chairman of the Hudson/Revuelta Land Association. Using the successful model established by landowner associations in Wyoming, Box and others are working together to negotiate with developers and investors working on wind farms. All told, there are more than 20 landowner associations in the state focused on wind development. They have 2,000 members, he says, and represent approximately 2 million acres of private land in New Mexico.

As far as Box is concerned, farmers and ranchers should be on board with wind. Leasing land to wind farm developers, he says, offers farmers and ranchers additional income—something that can’t be taken for granted as farming and ranching communities struggle to stay afloat. Some landowners may even become co-owners of projects, he says, receiving royalties off the wind produced by turbines on their lands.

“Once they’re built, the cattle can graze underneath and there’s very little loss of usage of the land as far as ranging,” he says. “It’s just another revenue stream—and a lot of people are then able to hold onto their land and continue that lifestyle.”

Indeed, despite the limitations, the wind industry is already helping New Mexico’s economy, Robb Hirsch, who owns the Santa Fe-based company Windforce, says. Wind farms create short-term construction jobs as well as long-term maintenance and operation positions. Revenue from the electricity generated helps rural counties develop their local economies, he says, and projects located on state trust lands create revenue for schools and hospitals.

Wind can still grow exponentially, Hirsch says—but only if the public collaborates and cooperates with the private sector.

“If we continue to embrace conventional industry, the damage to the environment will be much more than from the renewable sources we’re talking about,” Hirsch, who is also executive director of the nonprofit Climate Change Leadership Institute, says. “The bottom line is we have to do a lot of things differently.”

While national leadership flails, failing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry, set taxes or limits on carbon emissions, or even set up a cap-and-trade program, states must again take the lead on renewables—just as they did by setting statewide renewable portfolio standards.

“If we’re going to sit and wait for an energy policy that’s robust and responsible, we’re going to be waiting a long time, and we’ll be leaving the consequences on the backs of future generations,” Hirsch says.

“We as a state need to lead because we can take it to a whole other level,” he says. “There are opportunities right here in front of us, we just need to take advantage of them.”  SFR


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