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Looking for alternatives: Region is prime for solar, wind energy generation

Written by Stewart McClintic on March 13, 2015

Jen Cooper (left), Craig Wentz (mid) and Otto Khera examine a solar panel at First Solar just outside of Deming on Jan. 15. Khera, Went and Cooper, as well as other Silver City Residents and the Daily Press, took a field trip out to First Solar and Macho Springs Wind Farm to explore what the future holds for renewable energy.

Climate change and health issues are a lingering thought in some people’s minds when talking about how electricity is made. New Mexico is heavily reliant on coal power, which is why some people throughout the state want a push toward alternative or renewable energy sources.

In mid-January, Keith Knadler led a group of Silver City residents, as well as Craig Wentz of Wentz Electric Co. LLC, on a field trip to a solar and wind plant in order to learn more about renewable energy.

During the field trip, residents learned that the Macho Springs Wind Farm, located between Deming and Hatch, is capable of producing around 50 megawatts of power —about twice as much as is needed to power a town the size of Silver City. In addition, right next door to the wind farm is a solar field, owned by Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar, that can produce just as much power as the wind field, if not more.

Otto Khera, one of the trip attendees, told the Daily Press he wanted to know what the future brings and if the community has a voice as to where energy comes from.

“It’s something we need to be paying attention to in terms of education, in terms of economic development, and in terms of the bigger picture of what’s happening generally with energy,” Khera said.

“This is big money and we’re seeing a change in this market that’s similar to what we saw in the ’90s regarding communication technology,” Khera added. He said the business side of solar energy is starting to see “smaller, more agile companies,” like Wentz Electric.

“Now we’re seeing a challenge to PNM and other incumbents in the energy business,” Khera said.

At the local level, Silver City is already powering a number of its facilities with solar energy.

Silver City Mayor Mike Morones said that instead of going with just one type of energy, the town is trying to “diversify” its energy resources.

He said the town cannot spend all of its bond money on projects such as solar or renewable energy because then there would be none left to fix or build facilities, or improve city property.

“We still have to take care and be diligent in how fast we proceed or what projects we choose to work on,” Morones said.

The city does, however, use a solar electricity plant at the Waste Water Treatment Center, and the Murray Ryan Visitor Center is partially powered by modified parking structures with solar panels.

Craig Wentz, owner of Wentz Electric Co., said the price of photovoltaic cells — solar panels — is cheaper than it used to be.

Initially, he said, only organizations like NASA with a lot of money could afford them. Since then, he added, they have become more affordable and are cost-competitive with coal.

Wentz, who worked on and helped build some of the coal power plants in the Farmington area, said the real cost of legacy, dirty fuels is not monetary, but to the environment and our health.

Wentz said areas around heavy use of coal power plants see more health issues such as lung problems, asthma, leukemia and mercury deposits in the water.

Although he said it is not the most exciting idea to him, Wentz suggested that a step in the right direction would be to use more gas-powered plants because gas burns much cleaner than coal.

However, in the long term he thinks the state should shift from fuels like coal and gas to renewables.

“As a citizen, I think we need to be (using) more than 20 percent (renewable energy),” Wentz said, referring to New Mexico’s renewable energy standard, which requires 20 percent of energy production to come from renewable sources by the year 2020.

Knadler said non-carbon-based power sources are good, especially for the environment.

Old-style coal-burning power plants probably won’t be built in the future because they’re expensive and won’t stand up to state and federal requirements, he added.

Mike Sauber, of the Office of Sustainability in Silver City, shares the same thoughts.

“The benefits are jobs,” Sauber said, since the solar industry is one of the fastest-growing job sectors in today’s economy.

He said that the economic and environmental incentives are beneficial as well. With the price of solar cells dropping, it is easier to purchase solar panels, and the environmental benefits speak for themselves, he added.

“Why burn coal or risk nuclear accidents when you can have a very benign source?” Sauber asked. He said the southwest region of the United States should be using more solar plants because there is an abundance of the source — sunlight.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on renewable energy in New Mexico and Grant County. You can read Part 2 here.


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