Locals raise concerns on PNM plant

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For nine hours, spread over two days, nearly 40 Valencia County residents sat down and discussed just what it would mean if PNM builds a new power plant on Belen's West Mesa.

Community leaders, elected officials, business and property owners near the proposed plant met at the Belen Public Library last Thursday and Friday to contemplate the question, "If PNM chooses to build and operate a gas-fired power plant in Valencia County, near Belen, how might that project support the best interest of the community?"

Doug Campbell, a manager in PNM's environmental services department said the PRC requires the company to do an integrated resource plan every three years. The report identifies the most cost-effective plan for the use of existing resources and the addition of new resources and programs. The 2011 IRP indicated that 40-megawatt units would be needed on the PNM grid in 2015 and 2016.

In late 2011, PNM requested proposals from power plant developers. This spring, PNM selected a developer, a technology for the facility and a site for its next two 40-MW natural gas generating quick start units. Quick start units that can be at full electric energy production in just 10 minutes.

The La Luz site, which is about two miles south of the intersection of Camino del Llano and Henderson Road, was chosen after an evaluation of 30 options offered as part of a competitive bidding process.

Campbell said the Valencia County location was ideal because the facility will be adjacent to two existing PNM stations, major electric transmission lines and two existing natural gas pipelines.

While the entire La Luz property will be 74 acres, including current PNM electric facility sites, PNM says the footprint of the plant will only be 10 acres, located somewhere on the larger parcel depending on future noise, light and traffic studies.

That acreage will need to be rezoned in order for construction to begin. The county requires a heavy industrial (I-3) zone for power generation facilities.

The first build phase will be a 40-MW unit but will be permitted for a total of 80 MW. Construction on the first unit is expected to begin in 2014, with the facility going into service in 2016. Campbell did not indicated when the second unit would be built.

During construction, PNM estimates there will be between 100 and 120 temporary jobs.

Campbell said PNM is making the commitment to use the local labor pool for the construction jobs, as much as possible.

"There may be some craft specialists we can't find locally and have to bring from out of state," Campbell said.

One 40-MW unit would measure about 150 feet long and 30 feet high, Campbell said, and depending on air quality permitting requirements, the exhaust tower could be up to 45 feet high.

After construction, Campbell said the facility might employ a handful of people to perform regular maintenance, but for the most part, the facility will be unmanned and power dispatched from another location.

The cost of the facility is estimated at $60 to $70 million. Estimated annual property taxes are $700,000 for one unit and $1.3 million for two units. When online, the addition of the new plant is expected to cost the average PNM household about $11 more per year beginning in 2017.

The power generated will be used for in-state PNM customers, Campbell said. It will produce enough energy for about 28,000 homes.

Campbell said the natural gas fueled power station is predicted to use no more than 200 acre-feet of water annually, which would be the "worst cast scenario," if the plant was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a year. The company has existing water rights in the middle Rio Grande Basin and will use those rights for two new wells on the site, he said.

When Campbell opened up the floor for questions people honed in on one issue — water.

Local farmer Ken Wright said what it really came down to was a water cooled plant was the cheapest to build.

"This puddle system, where the excess water evaporates and leaves an alkali sludge, is the cheapest," Wright said. "Have you ever thought about building an air-cooled plant? The wells on the mesa are about 600 to 700 feet deep. And then there's a guy over there with a bigger straw? No."

Campbell said that most of the air cooled plants were steam powered and the air system cooled the steam from the condensers.

Water use in a gas-fueled plant seems rather contradictory, Campbell said. To generate power, the natural gas has to burn hot, but if the flame burns too hot, it releases too many pollutants, so water is used to cool the flame, achieving a balance between the heat needed for power and limiting pollutants released into the air.

"There are some water-smart designs already built into this facility," he said.

Campbell reiterated that the usage of 200 acre-feet of water a year was based on the "absolute worst case" that the plant would be running every hour of every day.

Jim Lardner, owner and operator of New Mexico Travertine, asked how many hours a day the plant would run in the future, since it's not anticipated to run constantly as a base-load facility now.

"With the growth five years from now, how many hours will it be running," Lardner asked.

Campbell said he wasn't sure.

One woman asked if PNM had considered using treated wastewater to cool the plant, instead of pumping out of the aquifer. Campbell said if there was a ready source of treated water, it would be something the company was willing to look at.

"We haven't had much discussion about that. We want to do this efficiently with some reuse in some areas," he said.

One PNM representative said the company's Lordsburg plant, which is similar in size to the plant proposed for Valencia County, used 25 acre-feet of water last year.

Campbell said this plant would have much newer, more efficient technology compared to Lordsburg, which was completed in 2007.

Another woman asked if there were ways for the plant to use less water.

"You said there were some things incorporated into the design already," she said.

Campbell said some of the ways the plant could decrease its water use was through operational methods. Since the water will primarily be used to cool the flame, once the plant is putting out its full capacity of 40 MW, Campbell said the operator can "pull back on water. You'll see maybe a 20 percent reduction."

While 80 percent of the water used will end up going up the exhaust stack as steam, the remain 20 percent will be piped into lined evaporation pools. Once the water has evaporated, an alkali-heavy substance is left.

Some audience members asked if it was possible to reuse some of the water that went to the ponds or recapture some of the moisture going up the stack.

Campbell said those were things PNM could look at to make the plant more water efficient.

Mary Holmes lives about half a mile from the proposed build site and stuck it out through both days of the meeting.

Into Friday morning, she said water remained at the top of the list of concerns. Other issues raised were possible declining property values, the amount of light produced by the plant and the fact that it was still a "big ugly" for the people living on the mesa to see.

"Everyone in the valley wants it, loves it. The business people don't get that it is still a big 'if.' There is still permitting for water and zoning," Holmes said. "PNM sidestepped every pointed question we had — how deep were the wells, how noisy was it going to be?

"They have to test the water, test the depths of the well. They don't know how many they are going to drill," she said. "What about the pollutants that will pollute the air and the ground? We pointedly asked them and they kept sidestepping the water issue.

"We asked them, 'What are you going to do for us if our wells go dry?' They said, 'Well, it might not be us. It might be the farmers in the valley.' That's a totally different water table."

While Holmes didn't seem impressed with the meetings, she said PNM seemed to move some people off the fence.

"I think it convinced some people to roll over to, 'Yeah, we want it,'" she said. "In my opinion, all they heard was it's going to bring 100 to 150 jobs in. What they didn't hear was they were going to bring some disciplines from out of state. And that's only during construction. They have the transfer station out here and we rarely see a truck out there."

And for a lot of people in the valley, Holmes thinks it will be "out of sight, out of mind."

"Because it's not directly affecting people in valley, I don't think they understand fully the pollution and contamination that is going to spew off and what we'll be left with in ponds," she said. "I've fallen in love with the mesa and I don't want to move."

Holmes suggested that the plant be built east of the river, south of Rio Communities in the Rio Grande Industrial Park where the other peak generation station already stands.

"They already have one there; go over there," she said. "Frankly, I'd rather look at solar panels or windmills. I think a lot of those people at that meeting were only thinking of Belen, not Valencia County."

Holmes said PNM asked those at the meeting to volunteer to attend a meeting every two months for the next 24 months. In turn, Holmes said the participants asked to see what permits PNM was filing and what the company was requesting from the various agencies involved.

"These are the major concerns of someone who's going to live next to this big ugly thing," she said. "I took a good look at that thing in Albuquerque. I don't want that thing in my backyard."

After attending the meetings, Lardner said he felt in order to have renewable energy such as solar and wind, there was a need to have quick start power stations.

"For PNM, they need to have a way of doing this and doing it economically," Lardner said. "We need power. If we're going to use other means of electrical generation and have any growth in the valley, Albuquerque and surrounding area, we are obviously going to need some type of unit like this to meet demands in future."

Overall, Lardner said he thought the project would be good for Valencia County in light of the "boat load" of property taxes PNM would pay out on the facility.

"Like they said, they are going to put it somewhere. The county can enjoy a bump in property taxes," he said. "A lot of people were concerned about the water. If this was going to run 365 days a year, I could see where that would be issue. The other thing that did come up was increased rates. But where ever this happens, everyone is going to get the same kick."

In addition to the water use issues, Frederick Bermudez, a manager for PNM's investor communications, said nearby property owners raised the issue of declining property values if the plant was built on the mesa.

"They felt their property values would be negatively effected," Bermudez said. "Some were within a mile, some were closer. Concerns over water use and the impact on their wells was also raised.

"There may be an impact on other wells but we won't know until we do the hydrology study. Obviously, if there is any impact on property values or people's wells, we will give that strong consideration."

Now the feedback gathered over the two-day meeting will be taken back to PNM and a plan developed for the plant that will hopefully address the issues raised, Bermudez said.

"It was a very fruitful two-day process. We really gained knowledge of the issues," he said. "Once the plan is in place people will have the opportunity to come back and chime in. It will be some time before we come back with that plan because of all the concerns voiced."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.