The coming transformation of Luna County
Credit: The Coming Transformation of Luna County | By Leslie Bronken | 14 November 2021 | www.grantcountybeat.com ~~
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Plans to develop wind and solar farms in Luna County started long before 2009 when some residents started to become aware that something was going on. In order to develop Luna County and other areas in New Mexico for the transition to wind and solar as the main source of electrical energy, transmission lines were needed to service the areas where the wind and solar farms would be developed. Sunzia was created in 2006 to address the lack of transmission lines needed to service future wind/solar energy production areas in New Mexico and Arizona. Prior to that, the transition to renewable energy started with legislative changes in 2004.
This article is an introduction to and overview of what has been and is currently happening in Luna County. Other articles will follow.
In order for wind and solar farms to be developed, large power transmission lines need to be built near current and future wind/solar production areas, and to distant existing transmission lines in order service existing utility household and business customers far beyond Luna County’s border.
Luna County may be small in terms of population, but it is huge in terms of flat, vacant land. If there were no plans to exploit the wide open spaces for wind and solar in Luna County, there would have been no need for SunZia to spend capital to divert two different transmission line projects as far south as Deming. The construction phase of the Sunzia project below will start either later this year or early 2022.
COMMERCIAL SOLAR FARMS
Luna County is uniquely situated for solar. Much of the land is relatively flat and vacant, which is perfect for large commercial solar fields development. Luna County has nearly full sun over 325 days a year making Luna County a prime target for very large commercial solar projects.
Currently, there are three commercial solar fields in northeast Luna County. One is located on two sections of Federal BLM land, and has approximately 500 acres covered with solar panels that spread over parts of two sections of land. The next two nearby projects are located on one section of privately owned land, and total roughly 150 acres of solar panels each. These are relatively small commercial solar farms. Another much smaller commercial solar farm sits on 20 ares on the Columbus Highway (Hwy 11) about 7 miles south of town.
COMMERCIAL SOLAR FIELD ACREAGE REQUIREMENTS
As you can see from the above solar map, Luna County is in a prime area for large commercial solar projects. Other large commercial solar projects that have been built in the burgundy red zone of the southwest include projects that range from 5 million to 10 million solar panel facilities. Smaller large projects range from 1 to 5 million solar panels per solar field. These require thousands of acres. These solar fields created large numbers of temporary employees (from 350 on the low end to 700 plus on the high end. Most of these large projects are located on less than 5,000 acres (7.5 square miles) of either private or publicly owned land. Most of these projects take a number of years to build out once construction has started. (For additional information, search the internet for the 10 largest solar fields in the U.S. and the world.)
By this time, you might be wondering how many acres of flat land there are in Luna County that could be developed for solar. According to the 2009 Luna County Comprehensive Plan, there are numerous ranchers and farmers in Luna County who may have children who don’t want to take over the ranching and farming operations. This plan also indicated they may want to transition into either selling or leasing their land for solar or wind projects. Tens of thousands are acres are potentially available for development in Luna County. The only thing needed to complete solar or wind projects on Luna County farm and ranch land are major transmission lines.
The governor’s deadlines for 100% renewable energy are nearing. The process to develop wind and solar projects takes years of engineering and potentially years to go thru the permitting process. Looking at Luna County for solar development will not be an afterthought. There is no doubt that the developers are already in the wings.
Approximately 160 acres of solar fields are needed to produce enough electricity for Luna County residents, and another estimated 160-320 acres of solar fields for businesses in Luna County. Therefore, the bulk of solar production potential in Luna County is destined elsewhere, to the locations that don’t want the large solar projects in someone else’s backyard.
COMMERCIAL WIND FARMS
With the old technology of wind generators, only one area in Luna County was suitable for wind farm development due to an average steady wind speed at 7.5 mph. That is the area where the Macho Springs wind farm project was built in northeast Luna County.
Since that time, technology has changed. The new larger wind generators can operate profitably at steady wind speeds of 6.5 mph. This potentially opens up additional areas of Luna County for wind development in areas that have 6.5 to 7.0 mph steady winds. This includes the sloped areas around the Florida Mountain, in particular on the south and south east end of the Florida Mountain, and the Gap area. There is also a narrow zone of sustainable wind at 7.5 mph along the Little Florida, which would be suitable for wind generation, in addition to wind at 6.5 to 7.0 further out from the Little Florida.
Wind farms need large tracts of land. While the wind generator itself doesn’t take up a significant area of land, the generators need to be spread out so wind turbulence doesn’t interfere with nearby wind generators.
The Macho Springs project has 27 wind generators spread out over approximately 4 sections of land. Each section of land is 640 acres (1 mile x 1 mile), which is roughly 1 wind generator per 95 acres.
The Great Divide Wind Project is a commercial wind farm being built by Scout Energy in Grant County. It located 16 miles north of Lordsburg and sited on 20,000 acres of grazing land. Unlike land under solar panels, land near wind generators can be used for growing food or for grazing. The Great Divide Wind Project is planned to generate 250 MW of energy, or roughly 80 wind generators (depending on how many megawatts each wind generator is capable of producing). This is the first of three Great Divide projects planned. The location of the other two has not yet been determined.
The total number of acres that potentially could be used for wind development on the west side of the Little Florida is roughly 1,000 acres of privately owned land, and about 1,000 acres of land controlled by the BLM. There are roughly 3,000 to 5,000 acres of privately owned land at the southern end of the Florida that could be developed for wind. There are over 25,000 acres of privately owned land southeast of the Florida that could be used for either solar or wind development.
Most to all of the power generated by wind in Luna County will not be used by Luna County residents.
POWER TRANSMISSION LINES
The Sunzia Transmission line route was approved in 2015. The route through Luna County generally runs along the Hatch Highway area towards Deming. A substation will be built along the Hatch highway in an area roughly due north of the intersection of Hwy 549 and Hwy 377 / Stirrup Road area. The power lines will then divert north and around the residential area north of town over to the Duke Energy Natural Gas Plant, then south along the Peru Mills industrial park area before heading to Phoenix, Arizona.
The route where the Sunzia line is approved does not appear to be in a suitable wind area, however there is plenty of sunshine in Luna County. Solar projects built on private or BLM controlled land could hook up to the Sunzia line and eventually hook into the existing grid. Given the location of the Sunzia South Substation, an additional feeder line could be built over I-10 and service any commercial wind/solar project or community solar projects located along wide-open spaces along the Stirrup Road area on the west side of the Little Florida Mountain. There are currently no known plans for Sunzia to hook up to existing or new additional lines servicing the West Little Florida area.
The Southline Project appears in the Luna County 2009 Comprehensive Plan. As of 2009, the Southline transmission line route is taking a different but similar east-west path across Luna County. Notably, the plan includes a north-south transmission line down the east side of the Florida Mountains and heads towards the flat plains area Southeast of the Florida Mountain toward Columbus.
During a recent update to the County Commissioners in Grant County concerning the Sunzia lines, John Strand (Deming’s former City Administrator) explained that the Great Divide Wind Farm project in Grant County is not going to connect to the Sunzia transmission line. Instead, it is going to hook up to the Southline transmission line.
Since there are no homes or businesses requiring a large transmission line from the area south and southeast of the Florida Mountain, large wind and/or solar projects could be destined for eastern and southern Luna County.
It is unknown when construction of this line is planned or at what stage in the approval process this project may be.
EMPLOYMENT & HOUSING IMPACT
Sen. Udall stated that New Mexico is going to become the largest wind producer in the United States. The solar map above illustrates that Luna County is in one of the highest solar zones in the southwest, making Luna County ripe for major solar field development on both privately owned and BLM land. A lot of temporary construction jobs are created wherever these projects are built.
Governor Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act in March 2019, which speeds the time-line up for building out wind/solar projects so that New Mexico can be 100% carbon free in stages over the next 24 years (2045). The Act mandates 50% carbon free by 2030, just nine years from now. Sunzia’s line is planned to be operational by 2025.
As the employment numbers above reveal, there will likely be more jobs available in Luna County than existing unemployed residents are available. More people, in particular laborers, will need to move to Luna County. However, there isn’t enough available existing housing for that many workers and their families. Either the City of Deming will have to expand with new apartment complexes and infrastructure to provide enough water, sewer, and electricity, or a new town will have to be built in Luna County.
Approximately 10-11 years ago, a former employee in the planning department (no longer employed by Luna County and who had applied for the County Manager position at that time) informed this writer that a new town would probably be built in the Sunshine area. Former County Commissioners in office at that time may remember some 30-40 citizens packed the downstairs commission chambers, and this writer spoke up about the plans the would-be County Manager had in store for Luna County, which included a transition to public only transportation. Coincidentally, that happened to be at a special meeting to discuss the proposed transmission lines now approved to cross Luna County.
There may be more than rumor in that person’s disclosure about a new town. This writer discovered approximately 1,000 city sized lots (8 lots per half acre) platted in the Sunshine area. The location is perfect in terms of workers being able to head to the south Florida Mountain area to install wind/solar farms, or the west side of the Little Florida, as well as a direct route to Deming for shopping.
COMMUNITY SOLAR PROJECTS
Several months ago, Governor Grisham signed the Community Solar Act. Community Solar Projects are small 1 to 5 MW solar projects located on 5 to 25 acre sites. These can be built pretty much anywhere the City or County Planning Department approves, and in particular in the rural areas of the county since there is little to no zoning. These smaller solar projects can hook up to existing power lines. Part of the approval process for these small solar projects would include the financial ability of the applicant to complete the projects as well as the experience to work with the utility companies.
The general idea is that these smaller projects would feed energy into the local utility grid. The energy generated in the neighborhood would be available for the neighborhood consumption. Excess energy produced in theory would be available elsewhere within the area served by the same local utility company (either PNM or Columbus Electric). The Act mandates that utility companies allow these small solar projects to feed energy into their lines.
Each community solar project would in turn sell/lease an interest in the community solar project to residents or businesses that are connected to the same utility company. A community solar project connected to PNM in Luna County, could have all its interests sold to PNM customers locally or in other areas serviced by PNM. The common denominator is the utility company, not geographical proximity to the project. A resident in an upscale neighborhood in a distant city could purchase an interest in a community solar project in Luna County’s backyard, as long as they have the same utility company.
The community solar field operator reports the percentage of interests in the project monthly to the utility company, so that the proportional kilowatt hours can be reflected on utility customers’ monthly bills as a credit the following month. The residence/business would receive an electric bill from their utility company, pay it, and the following month receive a credit in terms of their portion of the kWh generated by the community solar field. The resident/business would make payments to the community solar field for their portion of percentage of interest in the project under whatever terms are negotiated with the owner of the community solar project.
Clear as mud, right? Think of it this way. You’ll get two bills instead of one. One for the electricity that comes from either PNM or Columbus Electric, and the other from the community solar operator as some type of installment to participate. (The exact billing mechanism from each community solar project isn’t detailed in the Act.)
The PRC (Public Regulatory Commission) will regulate the rates charged by PNM. The PRC will not be regulating rates charged by the Community Solar projects..
LUNA COUNTY WIND & SOLAR ORDINANCE
In order to regulate wind and solar development, the Luna County Commissioners have voted in favor of creating a Wind and Solar Ordinance. Zoning regulations affect individual areas withing a city or county. County Ordinances cover an entire county. Since there is no zoning in Luna County, the commissioners have taken the route of a county wide ordinance.
The Ordinance is in the early drafting stages. At some point, the County Commissioners will hold a Public Hearing for the purpose of hearing support for or against the provisions in the Ordinance. Concerns expressed by residents may impact the final version of the Ordinance.
The Ordinance covers in part:
Set-backs for wind and solar projects from property lines
Minimum size lots for commercial development
Maximum size lots for community solar projects
Maximum decibel ratings for wind generators at the project property line
Glare reflected off of solar panels for air traffic and residences
Required studies for wild animal and bird species, historical artifacts, etc.
Impact studies on flood plains
Minimum blade height from the ground and other wind generator features
FCC required signal interferrence analysis for TV/Radio and other communications equipment
Shadow flicker from wind turbines on neighboring properties
Public health and safety
The purpose of the Ordinance is not to green light every application for a special use permit that is submitted. The Ordinance is to provide guidance to staff in the Planning Department, the County Manager’s Office and current and future County Commissioners as to what kind of projects can be permitted and which projects must be turned down. In addition, the Ordinance lays out the guidelines for solar and wind developer Applicants as to what conditions must be met prior to any permit being issued.
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY OF LUNA COUNTY
The Republican Party of Luna County feels that it is in the best interests of the entire community to learn about what is happening, as well as the pros and cons of wind and solar energy development in Luna County. The Republican Party of Luna County will notify via email when the proposed Ordinance is available for public review, as well as the date and time for any the Public Hearing(s).
After you have read the next article(s), which will address the pros and cons of wind and solar, if you have an opinion for or against Solar and Wind development, you should contact the County Commissioners via standard postal service mail to let them know if you support or oppose the Ordinance. Specify what portions of the Ordinance you support or oppose and why. If you oppose wind and/or solar 100%, you should indicate you want the Ordinance to ban commercial wind/solar development in Luna County. If you want the Ordinance to limit commercial wind and/or solar in some way, indicate what you would like to see.
Keep in mind that without an Ordinance, wind and solar can be built just about anywhere. Some residents may support many multiples of millions of solar panels in Luna County. Some residents want no additional commercial wind or solar projects built in Luna County. Other residents may be open to one or two commercial solar fields, but no wind, or vice-versa. If the County Commissioners only hear support for extensive development in Luna County from the developers, without having heard from the voices of their constituents, they will not know if there is support for or opposition to wind/solar for Luna County. Your silence on this issue is the same as approval of unlimited solar/wind development.
The Chairman of the Republican Party of Luna County recommends:
Residents should voice any support or concerns about wind and solar development in a respectful manner via letters written to your County Commissioners;
Carefully review the proposed Ordinance when the first public draft is distributed, and if you find a particular line item(s) either objectionable, or something you can support, inform the County Commissioners via mail;
In lieu of writing a separate letter, sign any petitions on specific items that may become available from either the Republican Party or other interested parties (do not sign more than one petition);
Attend the Public Hearing(s) if you have not written your commissioner to let them know in person of your position on the Ordinance, and any changes you would like to see;
Support the final draft of the Ordinance, even if you don’t agree with every detail, as the purpose is to limit solar and wind development in Luna County to a level and in a manner that is acceptable to Luna County residents.
The Ordinance is in the very early stages of being drafted.
No public hearing related to the Solar and Wind Ordinance has been scheduled yet. When this is scheduled on the agenda, please remember that public comment time is limited to three minutes.
Also note that a county ordinance may have little to no effect on commercial wind/solar projects that may be built on state or federal land.
Please watch your email for additional articles related to wind/solar development in Luna County.
The New Mexico Legislators passed the Energy Transition Act, which was signed into law in March 2019. 100% of New Mexico’s electricity must come from wind and solar by 2045, with 50% of the renewable energy production achieved by 2030.
The questions that remain:
How much factual information do you know about the pros/cons of wind/solar energy?
Where are the wind and solar farms going to be built?
How much wind/solar development do you want in Luna County?
Do you want large commercial wind or solar projects in your backyard?
This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.
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