The San Miguel County Commission is scheduled to vote on a revised ordinance governing wind-energy farms this week in Las Vegas.
A proposed wind farm by Chicago-based Invenergy, on mesa-top trust land leased from the New Mexico State Land Office, prompted an immediate backlash from nearby villages and a call for more space between the farm and private homes.
The residents living near and on Bernal Mesa, where the wind farm is proposed, want a three-mile setback from the closest residences.
Invenergy has proposed a 1,500-foot setback.
San Miguel County was the first in the state to approve a wind ordinance seven years ago when the wind industry was in its infancy. But it wasn’t designed for utility-scale projects. The Invenergy project would involve up to 50 turbines each standing more than 350 feet tall and capable of producing 1.5 megawatts of energy.
The ordinance, which applies to any wind farms in the county, will dictate how the Invenergy project ultimately looks, according to Mark Jacobsen, the company’s director of business development.
Unlike public utilities such as Public Service Company of New Mexico, wind farms aren’t governed by the state’s Public Regulation Commission unless the facility is larger than 300 megawatts. Since wind farms are technically free of any emissions, they aren’t overseen by the state Environment Department. But wind farms have to follow county ordinances.
New Mexico ranks 12th in the U.S. for wind-energy capacity. Currently only a tiny fraction of the wind-energy possibilities in the state have been developed. About 700 megawatts are in place or under construction.
Wind-energy facilities are in the planning stages for more than half a million acres of state trust lands or private land in rural, sparsely populated southeastern New Mexico.
Any of those developments need three things: land, wind and access to major power-transmission lines.
Other counties, such as Guadalupe, have benefited economically from the taxes and jobs created by wind-energy projects. Jacobsen has estimated Invenergy’s proposed project would generate $56 million for San Miguel County over 20 years in construction, royalties to landowners, county taxes and several permanent jobs.
But residents in the villages south of Interstate 25 and along the Pecos River near the proposed Invenergy site say there are better places to put such a major wind facility. They believe Bernal was chosen because it is close to a major power line.
Gloria Gonzales, a community activist who is among those who have fought hard to stop the Invenergy project, said she believes the drawbacks outweigh any benefits.
“We are all alternative-energy advocates. We are for locally produced energy,” said Gonzales, a member of New Mexico Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy and Sustainability. “What we really believe in is appropriate industry in appropriate places.”
Gonzales, an El Valle resident, said the valley has about 5,000 people living in more than a dozen villages around the mesa.
Some of them would benefit from leasing land to Invenergy, but the project would completely change a landscape that is considered a national scenic byway. She also said when companies tout “local jobs,” they don’t guarantee local people will be hired for them.
Gonzales said the proposed ordinance does include a variance for a wind farm if landowners near the project support it.
Jacobsen said the setback in the ordinance is the company’s biggest concern. He said the industry standard is 1,500 feet. “This is a decision that the county leadership is going to have to take a hard look at,” he said. “Do they want development or don’t they? Three miles would indicate they don’t.”
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