Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

New Mexico’s power grid is about to get a big green boost. On Wednesday, the president and councilmen from the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Mayor Tim Keller unveiled the progress of Solar Direct, a large 50-megawatt solar farm on the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Once the first phase is operational in early 2022, it is expected to power 16,000 homes. 

The partnership is part of a long history of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe’s utilization of its energy resources. The tribe has benefited from oil and natural gas extraction for decades but is now looking at diversifying its energy portfolio and helping the state achieve a zero-emission energy source by 2045, this time through solar. The plant was anticipated to be operational by the end of 2021, but due to shipping delays on solar panels, the expected operation date has been pushed back to early 2022. 

The Paper. spoke to Jicarilla Apache Nation Legislative Councilman Romaine Wood about the tribe’s investment in their energy exportation and the greater New Mexico economy. “One of the number one revenues for our tribe has been natural resources. It has always been oil and gas. We’ve been looking at other avenues and other revenues for our tribe, and solar seems to be huge. We have one of the largest PNM lines that run through our reservations,” Wood said.

“This first phase is the third largest solar project on any reservation in North America. But once said and done, we’ll be up with 250 MW, and that will be the largest solar project and battery storage for any tribe in North America,” Wood added.

Wood also expressed the tribe’s excitement for this next chapter in the tribe’s role as an energy exporter in the state. “To be a leader and lead the way for other tribes to see that this is possible and this is a way to bring revenue into your tribes is great. But to have it as renewable energy is huge.”

A project of this magnitude, especially for a state that is considered a giant in the fossil fuel industry, is profound for New Mexico’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint and reach its carbon-neutral goal by 2045.

PNM, a key partner with the project, has an even more ambitious goal of supplying its customers with zero-emission energy sources by 2040. 

“It’s built on this foundation of a shared goal. All of our customers, who are voluntary partners of this program, wanted sustainable energy. We wanted to find a way to work with them to accomplish that goal. So we worked together with our nine voluntary partners to build this 50-megawatt solar plant,” PNM spokesperson Kelly-Renae Huber said. 

“The unique value of this partnership and the Solar Direct program is that it is fully paid by the voluntary participants, so any other customers or residential customers will not see a penny out of their bills that will go to this plant,” Huber said. She also added that the program is not subsidized by any other customers, which makes it unique in this industry.

Keller noted that this project is the culmination of three years of planning and developing with regional partners. He emphasized that is a demonstration of the city’s investment in a sustainable future. “It shows that we have gone from roughly 70th in solar cities to, I believe, tied with second in the country. This is literally one of the most ambitious solar projects in the country, and it’s for Albuquerque.”

City Sustainability Officer Kelsey Rader, who has helped develop this project, noted the long-lasting energy savings that this project will have for Albuquerque residents. “Solar Direct is technically a voluntary solar program for governmental and large commercial customers and is one of PNM’s first programs to allow these entities to be able to purchase large quantities of solar to help towards achieving renewable energy use goals for their facilities. The City of Albuquerque in particular is seeking to achieve 100 percent renewable energy (RE) use for its government facilities by 2025. Solar Direct, once online, should help the city to reach up to an estimated 88 percent RE use for its facilities.” The program allows large power users like the City of Albuquerque to purchase power at a lower cost directly from facilities like these, but only if they agree to a 15-year commitment to using that renewable resource.

According to Rader, once online, Solar Direct is estimated to save the city $641,871 annually, which is only expected to increase. Solar Direct will not directly impact the rates for Albuquerque consumers, but because of the low energy cost of solar, it will offset any fuel-related changes if there is an increase in oil and gas prices. As more and more of Solar Direct comes into operation, it will benefit buildings other than government buildings, and more of Albuquerque’s energy grid will source its power from the solar plant.

Solar Direct is the product of nine regional partners, including the Jicarilla Apache Nation, PNM, Western New Mexico University and the City of Albuquerque. Once completed the plant is expected to cover 10 square miles. 

“This project is hopefully the way the energy industry goes forward in working and partnerships with tribal communities and tribal lands to build solar and renewable energy and utilizing the natural resources,” Huber said.

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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.