Valencia County P&Z Commission to consider power plant zone change

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A request for a zone change for a new power plant on the mesa west of Belen will be considered by the Valencia County Planning and Zoning Commission this afternoon.

Public Service Company of New Mexico, acting as the agent for Wallhead Electric Company Inc., is asking for a rezone from outland district to heavy industrial.

Under county zoning ordinances, I-3 is the only zoning with a permissive use for a power generating facility.

Called the La Luz Energy Center, the site was chosen after an evaluation of 30 options that were offered as part of a competitive bidding process, according to PNM officials.

The site is about two miles south of the intersection of Camino del Llano and Henderson Road, said Doug Campbell, a manager in PNM's environmental services department.

Campbell said the PRC requires the company to do an integrated resource plan every three years, which 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.

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.

The first build phase will be a 40-megawatt unit but will be permitted for 80-megawatts total. Construction on the first unit is expected to begin in 2014, with the facility going into service in 2016. Campbell did not indicate 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, but some "craft specialists" would be brought in from out of state.

One 40-megawatt 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.

In an effort to familiarize the public with the plans for the plant, PNM hosted two open houses last week, complete with site maps, noise and water usage charts and photo replicas of what the plant will most likely look like after the full build-out.

Steve Tomita, the new planning and zoning director for the city of Belen, said as a former private sector developer in Arizona, he has seen many plants like the PNM facility be built.

"There's a big push for solar, but it only runs when the sun is out, and windmills only work when the wind is blowing," Tomita said. "You need these for backup and for cases like last year's huge winter power demand overload."

Tomita said what he had seen of the proposed designs were positive.

"They are trying to keep this as low a profile as possible, making good use of the buffer areas," he said. "By setting is well back from the property lines, it's not on top of you in a neighborhood."

During a two-day meeting in July with PNM, residents and local farmers voiced concerns about water consumption for the plant.

Tomita said he had heard conversations about taking the water used by the plant and blending it with irrigation water for irrigation purposes.

"They are looking at ways to reuse it," he said.

Jim and Donna Crawford, of Tomé, didn't have a problem with the plant itself but rather the legislation that made it necessary to begin with.

"If they are going to have to build something, it might as well be here," Jim Crawford said.

And PNM "has" to build the back-up plant to come into compliance with state legislation that requires 20 percent of its energy portfolio come from renewables by 2020.

"People need to realize that the New Mexico legislature passed this law and imposed a huge debt on the customers," Donna Crawford said.

At an estimated cost increase of $11 per year per family, PNM will see an additional $2.3 billion in revenues, she said.

Calling the cost of building renewable energy sites and back-up centers a "double whammy for rate payers and tax payers," Jim Crawford said it wasn't an efficient use of money to build a $60 to $70 million plant that would only run 10 percent of the year.

"I want the renewable portfolio standard repealed," his wife said. "I'm not against renewables; they're a good thing. I just don't want the New Mexico legislature shoving it down our throats."

Ron Gabaldon works at the Valencia Energy Facility in the Rio Grande Industrial Park, south of Rio Communities on N.M. 304.

Gabaldon said he came to the open house to help people understand the new plant.

"The Valencia plant uses very little water. We are always way under our permitted capacity," Gabaldon said. "Most of the cooling is done through the plant's air conditioning units. We probably use more electricity than water."

At 150 megawatts, the Valencia County center is just less than double the capacity the La Luz site will be on completion.

"This one is tiny in comparison. And with the more advanced environmental controls, this one will put out less emissions than a car," Gabaldon said. "This one will be quieter than ours. You won't even know it's running. When you drive into our parking lot, ours sounds like a vacuum. This one will be quieter than that."


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