Known for its beautiful lakes, majestic landscapes, and abundant wildlife, the Jicarilla Apache Nation reservation in northwestern New Mexico will soon become known for another impressive environmental feature: a 400-acre solar farm. The project, called PNM Solar Direct, is the result of an innovative public-private partnership that will bring economic development and clean energy jobs to the approximately 3,500-member Nation. At the same time, the solar farm will help the city of Albuquerque move forward in meeting its goal of 100 percent renewable energy for municipal operations by 2030.
With the Jicarilla Apache Nation boasting an average of 283 days of sunshine per year, the 50-megawatt solar farm is estimated to produce enough power for 16,000 homes. Hecate Energy will build and operate the solar array, leasing the land from the Jicarilla Apache Nation for $1.5 million. PNM will then purchase the solar power generated, distributing 25 megawatts to individual subscribers in Albuquerque and 25 megawatts to other large subscribers, such as universities and businesses. The subscription service offers a fixed rate for a 15-year term, which helps protect customers from fluctuating energy costs. This will bring Albuquerque’s renewable energy usage to over 80 percent. With support from the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, the City hopes to achieve 100 percent renewable energy well ahead of schedule.
Currently, there are only two other solar projects on tribal lands nationwide; PNM Solar Direct will be the third largest. In 2012, the passage of the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership (HEARTH) Act reduced regulatory hurdles impacting energy development on tribal land, but many of those previous developments focused on carbon-heavy, land-intensive projects like oil, natural gas, and uranium mining. PNM Solar Direct offers a new pathway to how the HEARTH Act can bring sustainable, economic development to tribal communities without adverse impacts to health, water, the environment, or the climate.
The PNM Solar Direct project is years in the making, having required a lengthy public utility approval process. Its construction represents a new model for how rural and urban residents can benefit from clean energy projects. Developing a large, off-site solar field in an area with sufficient transmission capabilities creates the economy of scale necessary to make it easier for cities such as Albuquerque to purchase solar energy at half the cost of on-site projects. PNM Solar Direct provides an important test case, both for how customers can utilize this type of subscription model and for how cities can bring solar energy to the table by getting more clean and affordable energy onto the grid.
The solar farm will broke ground on October 15, 2020, at an event to be attended by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, President Darrell Paiz of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and representatives from PNM. It is projected to be completed next year. Moving forward, it will serve as a template for renewable energy development in the state and ideally drive further investments on tribal lands while helping to bring clean energy to neighbors near and far.