Big Wind Gets Big Hug In New Mexico

That vaguely described but definitely giant New Mexico wind farm possibility that we wrote about a few weeks ago is coming into sharper focus, with new action in the state suggesting it could become a reality. For one thing, the locals seems eager to see it built.

The Mountain View Telegraph reported this week that commissioners in Torrance County, where hundreds of turbines generating as much as 1 gigawatt of power might be sited, have backed a $450 million industrial bond issue intended to help Iberdrola Renewables build  the wind farm.

new mexico wind farm

image via Shutterstock

In an era when we often hear shouts of “Not in my backyard!” when the wind industry rolls into town, the reception given Iberdrola in Torrance County, an hour or so southeast of Albuquerque, was pretty remarkable. The commissioners passed a resolution endorsing the bond issue, and did so with apparent enthusiasm:

Commissioner Lonnie Freyburger said he “happily” moved to approve a resolution for the bond. “I welcome you with open arms,” he told Mark Stacy, the director of development for Iberdrola, and an attorney representing the company, Daniel Alsup of Albuquerque’s Modrall Sperling.

In our previous story, we reported that the state of New Mexico would hold a lease auction in September for 33,600 acres for the wind farm. But it turns out that’s just the state-land portion for the envisioned project. According to the Telegraph article, there’s also 87,000 acres in private land leases that Iberdrola would use to build the project.

That’s a big patch of land; it makes you wonder how long it will be before this project faces scrutiny for its potential environmental impact. Certainly the high plains of New Mexico aren’t invulnerable to the impacts of large-scale power development, even when it’s in a needed emissions-free form.

Another question would be transmission: The Albuquerque Journal had an interesting story last year that included this assessment of the state’s ability to bring new renewables online:

“New Mexico has substantial ability to develop and produce renewable energy, but the local market is small, and we need transmission lines to get that electricity to markets in other states that need it,” said Jeremy Turner, executive director of New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Transmission Authority. “It’s a real bottleneck.”

But assuming everything lines up, it looks like the way this project will unfold is that Iberdrola will do a first phase of construction consisting of 149 turbines with 300 MW of capacity. Several additional phases would then push the total upward, perhaps to 1.2 GW.

How would that rank as far as big wind farms goes? High. Maybe even right at the top of the heap globally.

“Biggest wind farms” can be difficult to rank; it often depends on whether units in close proximately are lumped together as a single entity.

This discussion came up when the Shepherds Flat wind farm opened up in Oregon last year. At 845-MW, some people called it the biggest in the world, but the developers (and the U.S. Department of Energy) used the phrase “one of the world’s biggest wind farms,” apparently not interested in picking a fight with the Alta Wind Energy Center in California, which checks in at 1,020 MW (and growing).

Alta has several units, and some people apparently don’t want to add them all together and call it the biggest wind farm, and instead give that title to Shepherds Flat. But Shepherds Flat itself is made up of three units was built in three blocks, too. Meanwhile, the Jaisalmer Wind Park in India reportedly reached 1,064 MW in April 2012.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Octavion

    Did you know that every kw of electrical energy produced by wind power has to be backed up by some other source…one that isn’t as unreliable as wind power? Here in the NW that’s natural gas and coal.

    So, is wind power all that green?

  • Eugene Wilkie

    Octavion

    Every KWh of wind power produced offsets every KWh of coal power produced. Your statement is completely false and misleading.

    • Alec Sevins

      I agree that the fossil fuel offset argument is overstated and misleading, since the plants don’t need to produce AS much power; they just have to be on standby. Population growth (the core problem) and growing demand make it unlikely that fossil fuel plants will be “replaced” anytime soon, so it’s a strawman argument. The different sources augment each other.

      BUT, the growing aesthetic ruin of landscapes by wind turbines is not a trivial matter, along with new data on bird & bat kills (see Smallwood study). Close to 1.5 million birds + bats may be dying each year in America. Bats are especially hard hit since they are drawn to turbines.

      To call one’s self an environmentalist and rationalize away landscape blight, infrasonic/thumping noises, shadow flicker and animal deaths as collateral damage for a “green” economy seems no better than global warming denial. The full scope of “the environment” is a lot more than new sources of electricity. If you aim to protect “the environment,” you don’t make excuses for filling it with 400-foot industrial towers in rural areas that were formerly saved from such blight.

  • Alec Sevins

    I bet those “locals” won’t have to live right near the turbines. The acreage they require is staggering and they’re only “green” in the narrow context of not burning fossil fuels during usage; manufacturing and installation are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Future proliferation of wind turbines is downright depressing for anyone who wants to see America’s remaining “wide open spaces” unfettered by tall industrial machinery and access roads.

    Ironically, some of the same people who oppose ANWR oil drilling have used ANWR-style rationalizations about the footprint of wind turbines. ANWR advocates claim that “only 2,000 acres will be affected” out of 1.5 million total in that refuge. They pretend that ONLY the oil well (or wind turbine) pads account for their “effective footprint,” not the total acreage they sweep. I wonder if turbine-pushers favor roadless wilderness? Wind turbines create the opposite situation and their roads must be wide enough for semi trucks to haul ridiculously large components with a wide turning radius. Oil drilling, fracking and coal mining are often criticized for creating similar land scars. Why is it suddenly “green” and “clean” when perpetrated by the wind industry?

    Aesthetically, once land has been developed with towers and access roads between them, the entire acreage between the structures ceases to be wilderness. You can’t just look away from the artificial parts and only notice the spared spaces. Formerly scenic filming locations are already being affected by wind turbines and they have to relocate or digitally mask them out (maybe Hollywood will sour on these things). Those who downplay aesthetic ruin have no business calling themselves environmentalists. They’re more like Trekkies who want to terraform every possible planet. Wind turbine companies echo the old mantra of “Manifest Destiny” in their zeal to infiltrate the final remnants of our frontier.

    • Pete Danko

      Just so there’s no confusion, ANWR is an officially designated wildnerness area — “Artic National Wildlife Refuge” — where by law road-building and, indeed, a whole host of other development activities, are prohibited. The New Mexico area is not. Looking at it on Google Maps, once can see it has plenty of roads and structures, etc., throughout it. Which isn’t to say there might not be species vulnerability issues or habitat issues with wind development there — that always needs to be studied and assessed — but it’s a completely different situation than ANWR. It’s more akin to the areas of New Mexico where, in fact, plenty of oil and gas drilling does occur….

  • Kevin Espeseth