PNM to ask for zone change for east-side solar facility

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A major utility company is once again asking the county to rezone a large amount of land as heavy industrial in order to develop an energy generating facility.

On Wednesday, PNM will present its request to rezone 60 acres on the county's east llano to allow for the installation of 108,000 solar panels. The company will go before the county's planning and zoning commission at 4 p.m. The P&Z commissioners will recommend either approval or denial of the zone change to the county commission.

The 8-megawatt facility is being referred to as the Manzano Solar Energy Center.

The property, on the northwest corner of North Rio del Oro Loop and Bonita Vista Boulevard, is currently zoned for planned development. The county doesn't have a zoning designation for renewable energy sources, only the I-3, heavy industry designation, for power-generating facilities.

Bonita Vista Boulevard crosses the north loop, going north into the El Cerro-Monterey Park subdivision and south to Valencia High School.

Currently, there is a mobile home park to the north of the property that will share a fence with the facility, but no other development on the other three sides.

"It will be visible from the road, but the panels won't obstruct the view, they operate in silence, will not emit toxins into the ground or water and will use no water to produce energy," said Susan Sponar, with PNM corporate communications. The panels will be six feet in height and fixed in place, she said.

"Basically, they will just sit there. This project is very similar to the Los Lunas facility," Sponar said. "People are welcome to drive by and look at it. We want people to know exactly what we are proposing."

A zone change last month from PNM for a gas powered plant on the mesa west of Belen raised concerns about water consumption and the continued productivity of residential wells in the area.

With the solar installation, Sponar said no water will be used to create energy and none is needed to wash or maintain the panels after it goes live.

"Once they are installed, they just sit there, take in energy and transmit," she said. "Some water will be transported in and used for grading and dust control during construction only."

If the zone change is granted, this will be the second solar energy facility developed by PNM in the county. In June 2011, a 5-megawatt facility northwest of the Walmart Distribution Center in Los Lunas was put into production. The $100 million Los Lunas facility sits on 50 acres and contains 78,000 solar panels.

PNM chose First Solar out of Phoenix to build the Manzano Solar Energy Center through a competitive bid process initiated in 2011. First Solar also built the Los Lunas facility.

According to Sponar, the company is seeking the zone change in advance of a decision by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission on PNM's 2013 renewable energy plan.

"If approval is given for the renewable energy plan, the company can begin construction in a timely way to meet the state's renewable energy requirement," Sponar said.

She said PNM anticipates a decision from the PRC sometime in November.

PNM is required to file a renewable energy plan each year with the PRC for its review and approval that shows how the company proposes to meet the state's renewable energy requirement.

"It is this plan, which has been generally well-received, that the PRC will be deciding on in November," Sponar said via email.

An Integrated Resource Plan is also filed with the PRC every three years, Sponar said. As required by the state, this is a least-cost plan for serving PNM's customers reliably now and into the future.

"During the year leading up to the filing, we hold public meetings in our communities to gain input," Sponar explained in the same email. "This plan is posted online — anyone can read it."

Visit www.pnm.com/regulatory/irp.htm for information about the IRP and the renewable energy plan.

Sponar said the planning process for PNM's IRP is continuous, and during public meetings in Valencia County, the company heard from many people who are interested in seeing more renewable energy development.

If PRC approval of PNM's renewable energy plan comes through, the facility should be in service by end of next year.

The Manzano Solar Energy Center will cost about $18 million and generate about $200,000 in property taxes the first year.

The solar center will depreciate over 30 years, so the tax amount could drop, Sponar said, but there is no way to know what will happen to tax rates over that time period that could offset the depreciation amount to some degree. At current rates, Sponar estimated that taxes could decrease by about 3 percent a year.

During the three-month construction period, the project is expected to create 75 to 100 construction jobs, but once it's operational, there won't be an opportunity for permanent jobs in relation to the facility, Sponar said.

"Unfortunately, there will be no new permanent jobs created in the county once the solar facility is constructed simply because solar facilities do not require much in the way of work to keep them operating," she said. "There will be some additional work for system control, transmission and distribution lines, but that is not been quantified."

Part of the reason PNM selected the site on the east side of the county is because the acreage is near an existing substation and power lines, eliminating the need to build new facilities, and it is relatively flat, which helps with drainage, Sponar said.


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