Sun City Goes for Solar Energy
There have been a number of promising developments recently in the El Paso area which bode well for us living up to our “Sun City” nickname.
Being at the edge of Texas has been a mixed blessing as we strive to find a
new energy diet. The bad news in this respect has been that Texas has been run by oil-men for years. They are uninterested in developing alternative sources of energy. Add to this the fact that even as the “oil patch” dries up, the state still has huge natural gas reserves, which means that energy for heating homes, running vehicle fleets, and electrical generating stations is relatively inexpensive.
The good news, is that we are so close to New Mexico. What this means in terms of energy is that the El Paso area will eventually benefit from the Renewable Energy Portfolio requirements that New Mexico has basically forced on El Paso Electric Company (EPEC) for its customers in New Mexico beginning in 2011. At this point almost all EPEC power is generated by natural-gas-fired plants.
In June of 2009 EPEC announced a concentrated solar plant to be built on 450 acres of private land in Santa Teresa, NM. The facility is to be built by NRG Energy, a New Jersey power plant developer and operator, using technology developed by eSolar, a California company. Imagine 390,000 flat mirrors reflecting sunlight onto 32 water towers in the desert near Santa Teresa. The 92,000 megawatt plant –enough power for 30,000 homes– will be the third-largest solar project in operation in the United States if it goes online as planned by the summer of 2011. The drawback to the eSolar technology is that it uses lots of water, although the company claims the Santa Teresa plant would use no more water than a natural-gas-fueled plant of the same generating capacity. The plant could use brackish ground water and would reportably conform to Dona Ana County’s 40-year water plan. Another, more pressing, problem is that NRG’s option to buy the needed 450 acres is affected by the bankruptcy of the landowner, which had plans to develop a mini-city of 25,000 homes in the area before the recent recession.
Another good-news item is that Ft. Bliss, El Paso’s huge US Army post, recently embarked on a project to become energy-independent by 2025. This is part of a Defense Department effort to make fighting units and their bases self-sustaining using renewable energy. The first steps were conservation-oriented with some renewable energy measures and have resulted in an 11 percent cut in the base’s $24 million annual energy bill in the 18 months since the inception of the plan. The next step is solar panels for about 20 buildings scattered around the post. Those buildings will be the first power-generating “islands” in a $1.2 million setup providing electricity for use in other buildings connected by the post’s microgrid. Conservation measures already in place include insulation for tents and older buildings as well solar tubes, installed like skylights, which concentrate the sun’s rays to create natural lighting inside buildings. When the sun shines brightly, they are equivalent to about 400 watts of light.
The latest good news is that El Pasoans may soon be able to take out loans for building roof-top solar installations which could be repaid over a 20-year period as part of their property tax bills. Our mostly-progressive City Council has given approval for city staff to begin work on the program, moving forward with creating a Property Assessed Clean Energy program, or PACE, as it is called in other cities. Sustainability Director Marty Howells explained this is a voluntary program that property owners can use to pay for solar-power systems, improved insulation, and energy efficient furnaces and water-heaters. He envisions that homeowners could borrow up to $35,000 and businesses up to $500,000. Hopes are that perhaps 100 homeowners and 20 to 25 businesses might participate initially. Similar programs across the country charge property owners anywhere from 2 to 6 percent interest. Federal stimulus money will pay for a consultant to design the program while the initial funding would come from the contracted operator. The program could start as early as January with a $3 million pilot project to assess demand. The program might very well help create green jobs for El Paso and pave the way for property owners to reduce their monthly utility bills. -Laurence Gibson