County P&Z recommends PNM plant

........................................................................................................................................................................................

On a 3-1 vote, county planning and zoning commissioners recommended a zone change for a new power plant on the west mesa.

The request came from PNM, on behalf of California-based developer Wellhead Electric Company. Wellhead was selected by PNM from among the power plant developers that responded to a 2011 request for proposal on the project.

The site for what's being called La Luz Energy Center is about two miles south of the intersection of Camino del Llano and Harrison Road. PNM officials said the 74-acre site was chosen after an evaluation of 30 proposals.

While most of the public who addressed the commissioners Wednesday evening agreed steady, reliable energy is important, the sticking point came down to two central issues — water and access.

Before discussion began, Commissioner Joan Artiaga said she would recuse herself from the vote, but said she would like to participate in the discussion. Wellhead has an option to buy property owned by Artiaga north of the site, she said.

"But my husband and I own a couple hundred acres in the area — we live in Sausalito Estates. I have a vested interest, but it would be inappropriate for me to vote," Artiaga said.

Commission Chairman Jim Lane said he felt it would do no harm to let Artiaga ask questions, saying the planning and zoning hearing was "just the beginning of a zone change. We we will give our recommendation and it will go on to the commission. This is an information seeking process.

The first person to speak against the zone change was Hudd Griffith. He isn't a resident of the west mesa area, but does work at Valencia Energy Facility in the Rio Grande Industrial Park, south of Rio Communities.

PNM currently purchases all of the power generated at that peak load generating location. The facility is owned and operated by Southwest Generation.

"I am pro power and pro PNM. I'm not sure the La Luz site is the best site for Valencia County," Griffith said.

He went on to say what the Southwest Generation location in the industrial park could provide the same economic impacts in — increased property taxes and gross receipts taxes during construction — as a plant built on the La Luz site.

"Our location is basically a 'plug and play' operation for the unit PNM is proposing, minus the environmental impact," he said.

Griffith said the industrial park is already zoned I-3, the existing 150 MW plant had an available water source from New Mexico Water Company in Rio Communities and there was a natural gas line that ran through the park.

Lane didn't seemed pleased with Griffith's comments, saying "It sounds like you snookered me. So, you're against the project?"

Griffith said he was against he location.

"If this is such a 'plug and play' situation, why hasn't PNM been receptive to your idea?" Lane asked. Griffith said that as a question for PNM.

Commissioner Mike McCartney interjected, saying he didn't think it was the commission's place to "get involved with their negotiations. There's a reason (PNM) haven't accepted (Southwest Generation's) proposal," McCartney said.

"I just want Valencia County residents to know there is an alternative," Griffith said.

Mary Holmes, who lives on Rubio Road about a half mile west of the proposed plant location, said she was in favor of the plant, just not on the west mesa. Holmes said she toured RGIP earlier that day and called it "a very good location."

She said her water pressure from her 620-foot well has dropped, indicating a drop in the water table.

PNM is in the process of transferring water rights to the site that would allow it to drill a well about 800 feet in depth and pump up to 150 acre feet of water a year. That figure is based on the plant running all year, every day.

It is anticipated that it will only come online during peak load hours and when power in the grid drops due to lag in production from renewables, such as solar and wind.

Daniel Lopez, who lives on Harrison Road, about a quarter mile away, said he was also concerned about his well. At only 315 feet and providing water for four homes, Lopez said he felt it was likely his well would go dry or become unusable due to PNM's pumping.

Peter Eshman spoke on behalf of the Gen. Nathan Twinning Observatory, which is about eight miles from the proposed location.

"Ironically, we are off the grid and generate all our power on site. We have no well, so currently no water use," Eshman said. "We're not opposed to the plant or increased generation. We are opposed to a plant at this location. Our primary concern is lighting."

While PNM representatives have said the plant will comply with the New Mexico Night Skies Act and shield it's light, Eshman said the act was a "good start, at best."

"Anything 150 watts or less doesn't have to be shielded," he said. "A string of 25 watt lights can cause light trespass. We are also concerned about the increased pollutants and the heat put off by this facility. Both can cause heat distortion of the night sky."

There were three members of the public who spoke favorably of the project.

Neil Hise, Placitas resident and owner of Belen business Cemco, said as a business man, he needed a reliable source of electricity.

"If we don't have standby generator, I can't run my business," Hise said. "We need reliable power. We need look at long the term."

Los Lunas real estate developer Max Kiehne recalled what a significant event it was to get power in the small town of Reserve when he was a child.

"I'm in the development business. To build houses, you need power," Kiehne said. "This organization is about planning for future. I'm in support of the project."

Jim Crawford, of Tomé, described himself as a fixed income rate payer.

He was again critical of the renewable power standards implemented by the state Legislature, which necessitated the building of such bask-up stations.

"PNM is working hard to meet that standard. For every megawatt produced by renewables, there has to be a megawatt of backup," Crawford said. "Until the RPS is modified or repealed PNM has to build these plants, so why not here in Valencia County? They analyzed many sites and this was the most economical. Since PNM has to do this, it's the best choice for rate payers. And we could certainly use a bump in annual property taxes."

Commissioner Artiaga brought up the topic of access and roads around the existing PNM site, noting that the county had already vacated portions of two roads at PNM's request. Artiaga said the remaining road ended at the PNM site in a locked gate, cutting off access to properties north of the plant.

The site went live two years ago and Artiaga said she still didn't have a key, despite owning several hundred acres to the north.

Laurie Moye, PNM's coordinator for regulatory projects and public participation, said Artiaga had contacted her about the key, but up until recently didn't know she didn't have one.

There is a partial road that goes around the PNM substation, but it's only 20 feet wide, coming from a 50-foot easement, said Artiaga.

"That concerns me," she said. "And there are these two 90 degree turns. This is an issue of public safety."

It was unclear whether PNM or the county was, or would, be responsible for recutting a road west of Harrison to give property owners access north of the plant

Moye said PNM would have to make some improvements to bring in construction equipment and had committed to putting base course on part of Harrison.

The recommendation for the zone change was conditioned with the understanding that PNM would work with the county and the mesa residents to make sure a safe road that would allow access to all private property was in place.

The commissioners voted 4-0 to deny approval of the site plan PNM presented that evening, saying there needed to be more work done on the issue of access and roads.

In the Aug. 22 article about the proposed PNM power plant on the mesa west of Belen, Donna Crawford, a Tomé resident, was misquoted.

The $2.3 million she referred to is what estimates have shown it will cost ratepayers for the New Mexico Legislature-mandated renewable portfolio standard to be implemented.


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