Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.


The year 2020 was a very big one for Solarpunk as the Land of Enchantment turns to the sun and wind for answers to modernizing its increasing energy grid needs. Strong roots of zero-carbon mindfulness and an eco-friendly lifestyle that reach back to the 1960s in New Mexico are being embraced today by a new wave of tech-savvy individuals and groups with a vision. There is an increasing awareness around the world that we may never again use as much oil as we did before COVID-19 and that there is no time to waste if New Mexico is going to achieve its climate change goals of zero carbon by 2045. New Mexico is establishing itself as a national leader in renewable transition efforts, with several legislative efforts passed in 2019 and 2020 aimed at supporting renewable energy and redefining the state’s energy grid. Passive solar and a sustainable lifestyle are the wildcards in the zero-carbon game in New Mexico.

Solarpunk is a “new school” lifestyle movement focused on a positive, ecological vision tied to eco-political activism where humanity is reintegrated with nature. There are many similarities between today’s Solarpunks and the future-thinking tinkerers of the 1960s in New Mexico, a state where there is more than enough sun, wind and warm thermal water to live off the grid. Both envision a future oriented to clean energy and filled with craftsmanship, artistry and community, with technology powered by renewable energy. Solarpunk has a longing for this bygone time when tech was tinkerable, not mass produced and standardized.

The Solarpunk heritage begins in the ’60s with Peter Van Dresser and Steve Baer standing out in neon lights as the early pioneers of solar energy and sustainable housing. They were the future-thinking creative activists of that time and called for “a decentralized, biotechnic society.”

Steve Baer, often called a “dirty hippy,” dropped out from the American mainstream and began living off the land in New Mexico in the ’60s. Born in 1938, he is an inventor and pioneer of passive solar technology. Baer helped popularize the use of innovative structures incorporating unusual geometry for housing when he began formulating his masterpiece “The Zome” in the early 1960s in Corrales. The Zome was fabricated from recycled metal car tops cut into a network of 120-degree angles, which could be easily adapted to a wide variety of functions and spaces.

Baer’s Zomes and passive solar energy interests came together in Zomeworks, Inc., founded in 1969. The company is still providing renewable energy products made in the USA, with most requiring minimal maintenance and operating passively—no pumps, motors or outside power required (except on single- and dual-axis trackers). At his home in Corrales, Baer continues to experiment and develop new products that are available to the public through Zomeworks.

Peter van Dresser described himself as having spent most of his adult life laboring on the groundwork of a “personal economy outside the urban industrial complex.” Van Dresser built solar water heaters in Florida in the ’30s and had a long-term interest in the simple utilization of solar wind and solar energy. The passive solar home he built in the 1950s in Santa Fe inspired Baer to integrate solar into his Zome dwellings.

Together, Baer and van Dresser founded the New Mexico Solar Energy Association (NMSEA) in 1972 in Ghost Ranch, N.M. with Keith Haggard. The first “Life Technic” conference at Ghost Ranch brought together over 50 other members to share information about solar energy. After six months, and with much table pounding, the very diverse group came up with simple bylaws championing a do-it-yourself, non-mechanized approach to solar technology and building homes out of local materials.

The first project NMSEA did was the Sundwellings Project, inexpensive solar homes at Ghost Ranch that are still used by guests staying at the ranch today. The Four Corners Regional Commission awarded NMSEA a $34,000 grant to build low-tech, solar-heated dwellings made from material from the immediate area. Four dwellings were built, with three of them having their own unique solar feature: One utilized a lean-to greenhouse for heat, another had a Trombe wall collector, and a third one used the direct gain solar heating concept. The last dwelling served as a control to see how efficient each feature was. Chapters of NMSEA, a nonprofit 501-(C)-3 educational organization, continue to promote clean, renewable energy and sustainability in New Mexico.

A Solarpunk’s dream house is built from earth and old tires. The Earthship invasion of Taos has brought flowing artistic homes made of recycled material—all completely off the grid and powered by thermal mass for heating and photovoltaics for electricity. Mike Reynolds Earthships community in Taos is a radical experiment in sustainable architecture that highlights alternative systems for building and owning a house in an industrial society.

Solar energy will be the major source of electric power in the United States for many years to come. The transition to renewables has forced New Mexico to focus on the infrastructure that currently exists and who controls its electric grid flow. Modernizing, expanding and passing legislation is the only way to meet the state’s ambitious climate change targets. The oil and gas industry has a limited shelf life of less than 60 years, as oil reserves dwindle and companies close. A lot of those years will be a bust and some of those years will be a boom. New Mexico is addressing its rules and regulations for oil and gas in 2021. BP has announced a host of new, carbon-neutral commitments aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions across the company’s operations by 2050. These commitments include: increasing the proportion of investments into non-oil and gas businesses, installing methane measurement at all BP’s major oil and gas processing sites by 2023 and reducing methane intensity of operations by 50 percent. As rising temperatures and a COVID-19 world economy drive markets, Exxon Mobil Corp. has announced plans to write down $17 billion to $20 billion in natural gas assets. New Mexico is headed in a more sustainable direction.

Applause rang out long and loud when, after four very long years, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed New Mexico’s solar tax credit back into law in October, once again saving residents thousands of dollars on solar panel installations. The move gave solar companies hit by COVID-19 a much-needed boost.

When the House Bill 233 (Energy Grid Modernization Roadmap) passed the 2020 legislative session, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD)  tasked a Grid Modernization Advisory Group (GMAG) with producing a series of policy and technical whitepapers in accordance with the New Mexico Energy Transition Act (ETA) that were wide-ranging, flexible and technology-neutral. These documents lay down the draft for a plan to modernize New Mexico’s electric grid as it transitions to zero-carbon electricity resources by mid-century. Implementation of the ETA establishes New Mexico as a national leader in renewable transition efforts.

The EMNRD has scheduled a GMAG informational webinar on Dec. 17. EMNRD and GMAG members will present their accomplishments over the past three months. The meeting will be recorded and posted online. Public questions and comments on the presented material may be sent to The GMAG’s draft whitepapers will be available for public comment in early 2021.

In 2019 the New Mexico House of Representatives approved the Community Solar Act (HB 210). The state’s first community solar program will permit customers of an electric public utility to participate in a solar energy project that is remotely located from their properties and get a credit on their utility bill. This would allow a group or a school or a city in the state that wanted to build a solar array to purchase a share of a solar array, rather than owning and installing it on their own.

A local solar project of note this year is Joy Junction, Albuquerque’s South Valley’s homeless shelter was recently gifted green when two Albuquerque solar companies, Unirac and Sunpro, teamed up and donated $90,000 for a solar electric panel system to the shelter. It is estimated the installation will save the shelter $187,000 over the next 25 years.

The University of New Mexico recently outfitted the historic Zimmerman Library on its campus with solar panels, which will cover the electric needs of the library, with any excess electricity being used elsewhere on campus. UNM estimates the installation will save $25,000 and reduce its carbon footprint by 15 tons a year.

While New Mexico’s Solarpunk movement proposes that humans can learn to live in harmony with the planet, the global energy mix is shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, alternative lifestyles and a zero-carbon footprint. New Mexico has positioned itself well in the mix.