Opinion: Taos can be clean energy model for the rest of rural America

By Bob Bresnahan, founder of Renewable Taos and a trustee at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative
Posted 9/26/19

We have made significant progress in the transition to clean energy in north-central New Mexico, and we should be proud of what we've achieved. I address two questions - How much progress have we …

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Opinion: Taos can be clean energy model for the rest of rural America

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We have made significant progress in the transition to clean energy in north-central New Mexico, and we should be proud of what we've achieved. I address two questions - How much progress have we made? and Is it enough?

At least 100 households in the area served by Kit Carson Electric are "off the grid." They generate electricity for their homes with solar panels and store it in batteries for use at night or when it is cloudy. The first systems like this were installed in the 1980s.

There are more than 500 households including my own that generate electricity from solar panels on their rooftops but remain tied to the Kit Carson electric grid. They are "behind the meter" and sell excess generation to Kit Carson during the day and draw electricity from the grid at night. They use Kit Carson as a battery.

Both "off-the-grid" and "behind-the-meter" households contribute to clean energy. They demonstrate that solar is practical and helped build a thriving local solar industry. And, their solar purchases helped bring the price of solar down to the point where it is the second cheapest source of electricity trailing only wind.

On the other hand, rooftop solar is still two or three times as expensive as larger solar arrays tied to the electrical grid and it is simply too expensive for many households. Kit Carson Electric realized this early and by 2012 was the number four utility in the United States in terms of solar per capita in its service area. But, its attempts to install more solar were blocked by its supplier Tri-State.

In 2016 Kit Carson boldly broke away from Tri-State and its long-term contract with the help of Guzman Energy. After the break, Luis Reyes and the Kit Carson board, once again with the help of Guzman, launched the Kit Carson Solar Project. With arrays being built this year more than 16 megawatts of solar will provide electricity to Kit Carson members in 2020.

What does that mean? These arrays produce enough electricity to power 8,000 households. An additional 21 megawatts of solar arrays will be built beginning in 2020 and 2021. That will bring the total amount of solar serving Kit Carson members up to 37 MW, enough to power 18,500 households. Add in off-the-grid and behind-the-meter and well over 19,000 north-central New Mexico households will be powered by solar by 2021.

The Kit Carson Solar Project is a truly remarkable achievement, a giant step toward emission-free energy. Not only will it be emission-free and clean, it is cheap and will result in lower wholesale costs for Kit Carson.

But, is it enough? My answer is a resounding "No!" Solar can provide only around 40 percent of our energy. The remainder must come from sources that produce electricity at night and during cloudy weather. Wind energy can supply more, perhaps as much as the remaining 50 percent of our needs.

But wind will require access to new generators, and we can only get that in two ways. We can build our own wind generation in the Kit Carson service area or we can buy it from wind-rich eastern New Mexico and access it with a new transmission line.

We'll still be short of 100 percent clean energy because transportation, agriculture, industry and building heating and cooling represent around 70 percent of energy use. To get to 100 percent we must electrify everything and produce all electricity from emission-free sources. That is the Renewable Taos program.

Our successes demonstrate that we can do this in a decade. If we do, we will be a clean energy model for the rest of rural America. It is a huge project and we must keep pushing.

Renewable Taos believes we can reduce energy costs with wind and solar. For large arrays today, wind is 1 to 2 cents/kilowatt hour. Solar is 1.5 to 2 cents/kwh. That is a savings of 60 percent from coal and natural gas. A transmission line bringing wind from eastern New Mexico can connect all the way through to Española and points south and west.

We need to electrify our fleets and switch to electric heating and cooling of our buildings. With new transmission bringing us wind energy we can further boost the local economy and build large-scale solar arrays of 100 MWs to export solar and provide low-cost energy for our electric vehicles.

Bob Bresnahan is a founder of Renewable Taos and a trustee at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.

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