N.M. sets U.S. record with renewable project launch

Source: By Edward Klump, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Work is underway on a massive wind energy and transmission project that will help New Mexico make progress on renewable and zero-carbon emissions goals.

San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group LP announced yesterday that it has wrapped up financing and is ramping up construction on the Western Spirit Transmission line and a 1,050-megawatt-plus group of Western Spirit Wind projects.

The wind element represents “the largest single-phase construction of renewable power in U.S. history,” Mike Garland, Pattern’s CEO, said in a statement. Commercial operation is expected by the end of this year. Pattern said the Western Spirit Wind projects will be eligible for federal production tax credits.

“Tapping some of the best wind in the world, the Western Spirit Wind projects have a powerful generation profile with an evening peak that is a perfect complement to daytime solar and displaces the need for more expensive, ramping fossil fuels,” Garland said.

Western Spirit is happening as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) prioritizes climate action in the state. She signed the Energy Transition Act in 2019 that includes renewable energy standards and put New Mexico on a path toward zero-carbon resources from investor-owned electric utilities by 2045. Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the state’s biggest electric utility, has said it plans to provide 100% emissions-free power by the end of 2040.

The evolving power mix means renewables such as wind and solar will play an important role in keeping the lights on as New Mexico plans for the potential retirement of major fossil fuel power plants. As of September, coal and natural gas remained the top two sources of net electricity generation in the state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Pattern said it has “more than 4,500 MW of New Mexico wind in operation or development, representing over $9.5 billion of planned investments.”

GE Renewable Energy provided an illustration of what’s ahead yesterday as it disclosed an order for 377 turbines for Western Spirit that will be able to power the equivalent of over 590,000 homes.

The update comes after Xcel Energy Inc. recently touted work to wrap up another major New Mexico wind development — the Sagamore Wind Project (Energywire, Dec. 18, 2020).

And Western Spirit Transmission moves forward after it was previously sold by Clean Line Energy Partners, which had been pursuing long-haul transmission projects in the United States. The transmission element outlined by Pattern involves a roughly 150-mile line.

“It’s absolutely fantastic!” Michael Skelly, a senior adviser at Lazard Ltd. and founder of Clean Line, said of the Western Spirit update in an email yesterday to E&E News. “Transmission takes a long time, but this project shows that when you build transmission, you get a tremendous return with cheap energy, jobs, and economic development.”

‘Careful planning’

Pattern declined to discuss project cost details yesterday. But PNM, which plans to acquire the Western Spirit Transmission component once it’s completed, has previously referred to an expected $285 million net investment for that aspect.

In a statement yesterday, the utility said it was encouraged by progress made on the Western Spirit line. PNM uses a competitive procurement process for generation resources to serve customers.

“The wind power that will be delivered through this transmission line has not yet been selected as part of that competitive process,” the company said. “PNM will continue to review the potential of all bids in the future.”

Transmission lines are key to having New Mexico develop clean energy for the state and elsewhere, Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

“But as with all projects, developers and regulators have to take care with communities, land owners, habitats and wildlife,” she wrote. “Careful planning and consultation are essential.”

Some wariness remains among landowners who may be near Western Spirit or other transmission projects in the region. The SunZia Southwest Transmission Project is another proposal that has seen pushback and its route could be adjusted, for example. That project would run from New Mexico into Arizona.

Romy Baca, a resident of Socorro County, N.M., told E&E News in an email yesterday that new transmission lines near her would “change the landscape of our beautiful farming valley.” She expressed disappointment that the governor hadn’t met with her to find alternative routes for a line planned close to her home. Baca has concerns about both Western Spirit and SunZia, and she said she plans to work “to prevent further destruction.”

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, said in a statement that “Western Spirit’s progress is another exciting step toward the development of a diversified energy economy and the achievement of New Mexico’s forward-thinking renewable energy goals.” She said the state has facilitated meetings with constituents to make sure people can voice concerns.

Fernando Martinez, executive director of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, told E&E News via email that there’s “a vigorous process to develop siting for a transmission line route,” including public meetings. He said every easement was successfully negotiated with landowners in terms of the Western Spirit Transmission proposal.

Martinez called the transmission project “a first of its kind public private partnership” developed by the transmission authority and Pattern.

“The Western Spirit wind energy and electric transmission line projects are tremendous assets to New Mexico’s clean energy future and will allow a massive amount of wind energy to be used for many decades to come,” Martinez said.