New Mexico's Golden Opportunity

New Mexico is one of America’s sunniest states, but expanding solar power there has proven a major challenge. Why can’t the Land of Enchantment harness its sunshine?


By Nathan Chael


Afternoon in the New Mexico desert. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

New Mexico is a huge and varied state, geographically and culturally: it ranges over more than 120,000 square miles, making it just larger than the whole of the British Isles, is home to 23 distinct Native American tribes and five centuries of colonial Spanish and Mexican history, and borders five US states and two Mexican ones. However, faced with this immense variety, if you were forced to choose a single symbol to encapsulate New Mexico’s essence, it would undoubtedly be the sun. (In 1925, the then-fledgling state government made exactly that choice, selecting the Zia people’s sacred sun symbol to grace New Mexico’s striking new banner.)


For New Mexico is sunny indeed. The state resides alongside Arizona, California, and Nevada as one of the nation’s sunniest in terms of solar energy per unit area per unit time. The northern city of Santa Fe reports that it averages 325 sunny days per year. Las Cruces, an hour from the Mexican border in the heart of the sprawling Chihuahuan desert, claims a stunning 358.

But despite the blazing sun’s ubiquity over New Mexico’s vast territory, the state has failed to become a true solar power hub. In 2017, for instance, it got just 3.8% of its electric power from solar sources, behind comparatively cloud-covered states like Massachusetts and Vermont. Just 1% of America’s solar energy jobs are located in New Mexico. In the state called the ‘Land of Enchantment’ largely for the powerful beauty of its sunrises and sunsets, the story of solar energy has been one of fits, starts, and frustrations, for reasons as diverse as the state itself.


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New Mexico’s failure to capitalise on its exceptional solar resource is surprising, given that its neighbours have parlayed their expanses of sunny desert into large projects and impressive installed capacity. California, Arizona, and Nevada, New Mexico’s counterparts in the club of sunniest-states, rank first, third, and fourth respectively for total installed solar power capacity. New Mexico trails at a distant 16th. Nearby Utah and Nevada each have more than twice its number of jobs in the solar industry, according to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census, far outstripping their proportional population advantages.


One indicator of New Mexico’s laggardly solar progress is its lack of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants. These massive operations use sweeping arrays of mirrors to focus solar energy into a small, hot area to drive a steam turbine. SolarPACES, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) program which tracks the world’s developing, under-construction, and operational commercial CSP installations, lists 52 CSP projects in the US. There is nowhere better than the huge, empty deserts of the Southwest for siting such large-scale solar projects and linking them to America’s grid: Colorado and Utah each have one; Arizona and Nevada, three; and California, fourteen, including the world’s largest. New Mexico has none.


That’s not to say commercial CSP is the true litmus test for whether a state or region has succeeded in developing its solar capabilities. CSP has plenty of critics. It requires enormous up-front investment, and many believe that widely distributed solar energy generation through residential and community-scale photovoltaic (PV) panels is a more reliable option. But New Mexico’s lack of CSP nonetheless marks a distinct historical inability to attract interest and capital for solar energy projects. So why has the state struggled so mightily to scale up solar?


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The most obvious barrier is the relative weakness of the New Mexican economy. The state ranks 39th nationally both in population and GDP per capita, and has experienced one of the country’s slowest recoveries from 2008’s financial crisis. It also has serious and well-publicised education problems. Its public education system ranked 49th of the 50 states in a recent study, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that New Mexico was one of just 9 states to cut more than 30% of its public funding for higher education between 2008 and 2018. This was right when the price of a watt of solar energy in America was dropping like a rock, and installed solar capacity was expanding along a skyrocketing upward curve.


Given all this, it might seem obvious that New Mexico has simply lacked the economic demand, and the highly educated workforce dense with scientists, engineers, and businesspeople, necessary to develop and install state-of-the-art solar systems at scale. To some extent, this explanation might be right. But everyone uses energy, and Nevada and Arizona have managed to rapidly install solar generating capacity even as New Mexico has foundered, despite Nevada’s 50th-ranked education system and Arizona’s precipitous cuts in public higher education funding. Economics and education can’t be the whole story.


Plus, an absence of educated and knowledgeable potential solar technologists in the state is certainly not a problem New Mexico faces. Engineers working across the state’s university system recently received a $20 million National Science Foundation grant to research the future of America’s electricity grid, with a heavy emphasis on solar solutions. Los Alamos National Laboratory, famously the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program, also boasts some of the world’s most promising solar energy research, not to mention the country’s highest per capita concentration of PhDs.


Meanwhile, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, maintains extensive renewable energy programs, including the National Solar Thermal Test Facility. Though New Mexico has no CSP plants connected to the commercial grid, this facility carries out cutting-edge research, and has made important advances toward the ‘next generation of CSP technologies,’ Cliff Ho, a top scientist there, told me. However, none of them have been commercially installed in the state where they were developed. ‘[New Mexico] may be close to a tipping point, where there’s enough solar penetration that there has to be storage,’ which only CSP can provide. But this tipping point hasn’t arrived yet.


Being a hotspot for millions of federal research dollars for solar energy, in short, is not the same as actually producing and distributing solar energy. No Silicon Valley-esque ecosystem of researchers, entrepreneurs, and funders that can both produce new technologies and get them successfully to market has emerged in New Mexico. Rachel Hillier, the former executive director of the New Mexico Renewable Energy Industry Association and a former entrepreneur herself, described the state’s copious solar science talent: ‘They aren’t businesspeople.’ Ho, the Sandia solar researcher, agreed, though he argued that it isn’t for a lack of potential business acumen: scientists just get paid better. The labs do offer an ‘entrepreneurial leave package,’ he said, but it’s not particularly attractive financially. ‘There are reasons not to do it. That’s something we’re trying to address.’


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At least for now, it seems clear that the federal government will not give New Mexican solar the boost it needs. Things must instead proceed on the state level. In the early days of solar in the 2000s, this reality looked like a friendly one. In 2004, New Mexico was one of the first states to enact a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), requiring that 20% of the state’s electricity portfolio come from renewable sources by 2020. It also created a 30% renewable energy tax credit, incentivising citizens to install solar panels on their homes.


But as the price of a watt of solar energy plunged over the last decade, New Mexico stopped pushing for continued public and private solar investment, and other states raced ahead. Jessica Scott, senior director for the Interior West at Vote Solar, a solar advocacy organisation, put it bluntly: ‘The policies in New Mexico are not positioned to make it a clean energy leader.’ California forced progress by ratcheting up its RPS to 33% of electricity from renewables by 2020 and 60% by 2030. By contrast, New Mexico left its RPS untouched, axed its hefty renewables tax credit, and saw several pro-renewables bills vetoed by Susana Martinez, the Republican former governor. ‘It’s a really rocky road. In the industry we call it riding the solar-coaster,’ Hillier said, describing the combination of rapidly falling prices and unstable policies. ‘There would be an incentive, and then there wouldn’t be an incentive, and then the market would drop out.’


In theory, the state’s utilities could see solar as an opportunity and step in to help. But utility companies have played the opposite role, lobbying the state for policies to entrench their fossil-fired power plants. Chris Dizon, a solar installer in southeastern New Mexico, told me about how his area’s utility, Xcel Energy, used to charge consumers a fee to sell their own solar panels’ energy to the grid. The price was so steep that, in some cases, residents were actively losing money with every watt they produced.


Dizon took Xcel to court and won, but even the less nefarious actions of utilities have entrenched fossil fuels at the expense of increased solar investment. ‘They run on an archaic business model that incentivises them to stay committed to coal,’ said Scott. Hillier remarked that, before a few years ago, ‘PNM [the state’s largest utility] was always fighting any kind of legislation that would encourage the growth of solar.’ Everyone spoken to for this article believes the utilities are full of smart people with useful knowledge. However, they opined, these gifted individuals remain stuck in an institutional context that systematically disadvantages renewable resources. They hope the utilities can become ‘a partner, rather than an adversary,’ Hillier said. ‘We need them.’


However, it isn’t just the utility companies that oppose cuts to the state’s entrenched coal-power system. San Juan County in the state’s northwest corner is home to two immense coal-fired power plants serving millions of customers across the Southwest, and thousands of jobs will be lost if – or when – the plants go under. It’s already happening: two of the four units at the San Juan Generating Station closed in 2017. Adding another layer to the despair of present and future layoffs is the fact that the Navajo Nation covers much of San Juan County, and the unemployment rate on the reservation is already a staggering 42%.

The Four Corners Power Plant, a coal-fired plant in the Navajo Nation. (Image courtesy of Carlan Tapp)

The story of how coal came to be so intensely mined and burned in the Navajo Nation is complex and damning, involving heavy, harmful local pollution and dirty deals facilitated by the Sierra Club. But as it stands, the tribe is reliant on the coal economy for government revenue and food on the table. With coal seemingly on its way out in the long term, large-scale solar may become a bridge to more sustainable jobs in Navajo country. In the meantime, though, the tribe has a deal to supply the Four Corners Generating Station with coal from the Navajo Mine through 2031. By then, it’s anyone’s guess whether the tribe will have made more sustainable arrangements for the future.


More hopefully, other Native groups less dependent on coal have been able to take advantage of the promise of solar. In particular, for the pueblos – small, rural Native communities spread across the north-central part of New Mexico – renewables offer a measure of much-desired independence, reliable energy based on the strength of their own solar resources instead of a single power line running into town from distant parts. For some pueblos, such energy sovereignty is becoming a reality: Picuris Pueblo near Taos cut the ribbon in late 2017 on a new 1-megawatt solar array that, on an average day, will provide enough to cover the entirety of the pueblo’s electricity needs.


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As it stands now, the state’s solar outlook is certainly improving. 50- and 140-megawatt utility-scale arrays recently opened near Roswell and Las Cruces. A new Facebook data center in Los Lunas will be powered by two new massive solar installations. And, since the price of home-produced solar dipped beneath the utilities’ rates around 2014 (putting New Mexican residential solar at ‘grid parity’), small-scale PV energy has continued to make incremental progress.


But the concrete results do not yet match the scale of the big talk buzzing around New Mexican solar circles in early 2019. The state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, is a font of renewables bullishness. The then-gubernatorial candidate’s ‘Clean Power, Clean Future’ campaign report proclaimed, ‘We are at a turning point in the state’ for renewable energy, and argued New Mexico must ‘embrace clean energy as our economic future.’ Hillier holds high hopes for the new administration: ‘[Lujan Grisham] really understands [solar policies]. We’re hitting the most promising state for solar in New Mexico that I’ve seen.’


With a vocally pro-solar governor in office, backed by invigorated Democratic majorities in both of the state congressional chambers, it certainly feels as though such a turning point should be upon us. The prevailing mood is one of vigorous but tense optimism: the state’s solar potential is obvious and the time is ripe for a breakthrough, but much work remains to be done. Nationally, ‘there are a lot of eyes on New Mexico right now,’ Scott said; within the state, there are also a great many jobless New Mexicans and citizens ready for cheaper energy access. In this liminal period for American energy, time will tell if the Land of Enchantment can make the sun, its foremost symbol and its deepest well of potential, a powerful driver of its people’s flourishing too.

Update: since the original print publication of this article, the New Mexico legislature passed a landmark electricity bill entitled the Energy Transition Act. It requires that 100% of New Mexico’s in-state electricity generation meet a zero-carbon standard by 2045, with a minimum of 80% of that generation produced by renewable sources. The bill was supported by PNM, the state's largest electrical utility, and passed closely along party lines. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law on April 1. 

Nathan Chael is a master’s student in the Earth Systems program at Stanford University, where he studies the political economy of climate change with a focus on the United States. He hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and enjoys good coffee, vigorous hiking, new playlists, and colorful sunsets. Nathan can be reached at nathanchael15@gmail.com.

This article appears in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III.


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