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New Mexico starting to deliver on wind power potential

New Mexico has plenty of potential for generating wind power, and it is now home to Avangrid Renewables' El Cabo wind project, the state's largest wind-power generating facility, with 142 towering turbines spread out on 56,000 acres of state and private l

By Paul MacDonald

The state of New Mexico is a leader in renewable energy—usually thought of as being a leader in solar power.

But New Mexico has also started to make its mark in wind power, possessing some spectacular wind resources. New Mexico ranked as the nation's fastest-growing state for wind energy construction in 2017, according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

The state added enough new turbines to produce 571 megawatts of electricity, growing installed capacity by 51 percent to 1.68 gigawatts, according to the association.

New Mexico could maintain front-running status for another several years, with 1.7 GW of new wind construction projects in the pipeline for installation through 2020, according to AWEA.

A project that has really upped the numbers in New Mexico wind power is Avangrid Renewables' El Cabo Wind Farm, which is now delivering 298 MW of power with its 142 Siemens Gamesa G114, 2.1-MW wind turbines.

In addition to being the largest wind power project in the state, it is also one of the largest wind power projects Avangrid Renewables has in the U.S.

On its own, this single project has significantly moved the dial in terms of wind capacity for New Mexico—and there is, no doubt, more to come. The state is ranked 12th nationally in terms of wind energy potential, with a staggering 50,000 MW of identified resource, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The $500 million El Cabo project is located in Torrance County about 80 miles east of Albuquerque, and it supplies renewable energy to Southern California Edison.

What is now a modern wind farm delivering power to thousands of homes was little more than grazing land when Avangrid Renewables project developer Mark Stacy started work on the project some seven years ago. The area had solid wind characteristics. But it wasn't the power transmission links that made a wind farm attractive on this site, at least not yet—simply because there was not any transmission capacity at the time.

 
  

"There wasn't a lot of transmission capacity in the area when we first began development of El Cabo back in 2011," he says. "But we were still drawn to it because of its wind resource. And as time moved along, and transmission started to become available, it made it possible for us to take advantage of this fantastic wind resource in New Mexico."

Wind power has some tremendous traction in the state now, but it was still fairly new to New Mexico when development started for the El Cabo project. As a result, like any jurisdiction new to wind power, there was a bit of an information sharing process that Avangrid did with local and state officials.

"Very early on in the development of the project, we found New Mexico to be friendly to renewable energy," Stacy explained. But at the time, and understandably, they were not used to dealing with the construction of a large-scale project like El Cabo, he added.

"The local authorities, the county commission, the economic development folks, were all open and interested in learning more about wind power and supporting the project—and bringing the economic development that goes along with such a large-scale project," he added.

And the numbers are impressive. El Cabo is expected to deliver at least $60.5 million in lease and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the community over 25 years. Project construction involved spending more than $15 million locally, and more than 13 local companies were employed in building the project.

Avangrid also brought the eight landowners—where the project is located—on board with what the project would consist of, on their ranches. The landowners knew their acreages had a terrific, sustainable wind resource.

"They already knew there was plenty of wind out there," said Stacy. "Most of the families had owned the land for generations." In fact, one of the ranches has an old-style wind water mill pump that sits not too far from three of the 450-foot tall Siemens Gamesa wind turbines.

 
 The El Cabo wind project is located on the property of eight landowners and a small amount of state land. Families have owned and lived on the land for generations. In fact, one of the ranches has an old-style wind water mill pump that sits not too far from three of the 450-foot tall Siemens Gamesa wind turbines (right).
  

There was also a small amount of state land used by the project. The project is spread out over 56,000 acres.

"We talked with the landowners about how Avangrid develops and builds a wind farm—and when construction started, they saw how the project was built. Once it was completed, they saw how things were wrapped up and the site was tidied up. And El Cabo is working just like clockwork now."

To get to that point took a lot of work and coordination, says Stacy.

As a matter of course, Avangrid does environmental studies on wind project sites, even if they might not be required by government bodies. "We did the typical realm of environmental analysis on El Cabo. There were no environmental concerns—there are some antelope out there, but there are no endangered species."

The contractor on the project, Wanzek Construction, benefited from the local road system, with state highway on two sides of the project site. This helped with component deliveries and getting people to the site.

"On the site itself, there weren't a lot of county roads on section lines," said Stacy. "For the most part, the land is just pasture with no road. So we built a lot of road as part of the project."

 
Project contractor Wanzek started work on the southern part of the site and proceeded north, with two construction crews. The construction workforce peaked at about 450, which is about five times the population of the nearest town, Encino. 
  

A New Mexico company, Bohannan Huston, provided design services for about 64 miles of road.

Fortunately, the land in this part of New Mexico is fairly flat. "It's not pancake flat, like you might see in Kansas or Nebraska—there is some topography there. But generally, it is broad, open, gently rolling land." In other words, pretty ideal for a wind farm.

Bohannan Huston also provided survey services. Interestingly, several townships in the area had not been surveyed since an original survey was done in the 1880s, requiring research and re-creation of parcel boundaries, says the company.

A huge benefit, in terms of logistics, is that a major BNSF rail line runs along the south border of the El Cabo project. It has a siding from a rock quarry that used to be in the area, and Siemens Gamesa made great use of this rail connection, to get turbine components close to the site.

When components made it to the site, their erection sometimes had to be staged at specific times. "One of the weather-related issues is that the wind blows too hard in the day sometimes to pull the rotors up. So we did night shifts to do that part of the work," explained Stacy. The gusty east plains of New Mexico have one of the windiest and most complex climates in the country, where severe storms are commonplace and temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees.

Wanzek started work on the southern part of the site and proceeded north, with two construction crews. The construction workforce peaked at about 450, which is about five times the population of the nearest town, Encino. "It was sure a bustling place during construction," says Stacy.

 
 A huge benefit, in terms of logistics, is that a major BNSF rail line runs along the south border of the El Cabo project. Siemens Gamesa made great use of this rail connection, to get turbine components close to the site.
  

Soil conditions for the wind turbine foundations were, for the most part, pretty straightforward. Wanzek ran into some bedrock in a few locations, which required some blasting.

"I've been involved with some other wind farms where there can be issues with soft soils that required different foundation designs, but there was nothing like that at El Cabo," says Stacy.

Throughout, there was solid support for the project from local and state governments, he said, which helped move it forward.

"We've had great support from them and are thankful for that. The challenges in developing El Cabo really revolved more around securing transmission." Stacy is in charge of the Rocky Mountain region for Avangrid Renewables. "That's the same story with all of our projects—it's not a matter of finding a great wind resource, it's a matter of finding transmission."

But it's there now, at El Cabo.

The power is collected through feeder lines from the turbines and delivered to a substation built by Par Electrical Contractors, near Encino. From there, a new high power transmission line transports the electricity 28 miles north to the Public Service Company of New Mexico's main line. It then flows northwest to interconnections and on to Southern California Edison, which is buying all of the output from El Cabo under a long-term power purchase agreement.

While Stacy's area of responsibility is more on the development side, he continued to be involved with El Cabo through the construction and operational phases. "It's good to be involved from the very beginning right through the life of a project," he says.

Stacy's Avangrid colleague, Paul Copleman, says that one of the strengths of the company is its involvement all the way through a project.

"Our presence in a community may start with a simple visit by a developer, determining if there is a good wind resource, and then starting to work with landowners. Years later, it can result in an operating project. And there are Avangrid people on the ground all the way through."

He notes that Avangrid's model is not to build a project and just turn it over to another company to operate; instead, it develops projects and is the long-term owner/operator with employees in the community.

There is a great sense of pride in these wind projects providing renewable energy, in El Cabo's case, to an estimated 90,000 homes, says Stacy.

"That's particularly true on projects where you are involved from beginning to end," he says. "One day, you're in a rental car looking around an area, thinking it might be a good place for a wind farm. And years later, you'll be back there, and there are a bunch of turbines turning in the wind.

"There is a real satisfaction in that," says Stacy, who still gets back to El Cabo to lead tours of the project.

There's more wind power to come for Avangrid Renewables in New Mexico. The company is developing another wind farm in the region, the 166-MW La Joya project, which would supply Facebook's data center in Las Lunas.

 


Winter 2019