Torrance County approves solar array

Editor’s Note: This story has been expanded and clarified from the print version, and corrects an error about the output of the solar array.

Torrance County gave a green light to a solar array facility which will partner with the Central New Mexico Electric Co-op, or CNMEC.

The array will make enough electricity to power 400 to 500 homes for a year—more than 5 million kilowatt/hours, said commercial and utility project developer for Affordable Solar, Wayne Stansfield, who said the project could be online this year, with power ready to flow to CNMEC customers.

That will be about 7,000 solar panels on about 30 acres.

Affordable Solar was asking for a special use permit, which is a zone change and must be approved by the commission. The planning and zoning board recommended that the project be approved.

The site will be alongside N.M. 41 just north of the judicial complex in Estancia. Because the location is right next to the town, its planning and zoning board was consulted also and gave its blessing.

Affordable Solar is a “local New Mexico company” with humble beginnings which now employs 80 to 100 people, Stansfield said, adding that the company has solar projects all over the state, mostly in rural areas.

“We can point pretty much in any direction and we have a project in the state,” Stansfield said. “We do everything from distribution, parts and components design work.”

Stansfield clarified in a later interview that Affordable Solar is a distribution company as well as a construction company, selling “parts and pieces” to small solar companies around the nation. He said one recent project awarded is Facebook, which will be three separate projects totaling 35 to 46 megawatts. The company does not manufacture components.

A public hearing was held in which no one spoke against the project. Several people asked questions about local hires and whether the project will create permanent jobs in the long run.

Stansfield said the company does its best to hire locally for those jobs it outsources, like fencing, but said Affordable Solar will do most of the technical work itself.

Myra Pancrazio of the Estancia Valley Economic Development Association, or EVEDA, explained that when big out-of-state companies come to New Mexico to build solar arrays, they hire Affordable Solar. “Affordable Solar builds their own solar array. For outsourcing work, we make sure the local businesses are put in front of them.”

Matthew Collins is the head of CNMEC, and said in the long run “it’s always a possibility that energy bills go lower” for its customers. “Every year [renewable energy] gets cheaper and cheaper, that’s why [CNMEC] agreed to this contract. The power’s gotten so cheap we can’t ignore it.”

The contract with CNMEC is for 25 years, Stansfield said, adding that the rate Affordable Solar charges the co-op for that electricity will not change for those 25 years.

While Torrance County approved the zoning change, the solar array is a privately built project in cooperation between CNMEC and Affordable Solar.

The array will have an 8-foot security fence, and the single condition imposed by the county is that Affordable Solar install a privacy screen along N.M. 41.

After commissioner Jim Frost made a motion to approve the zone change, the measure passed unanimously.

“At almost every commission meeting, and at other meetings, we are talking about economic development and how to bring companies into the county—and here you are, and we have difficulty to express our excitement,” said Commissioner Julia DuCharme. “But I think we are excited.”

Stansfield said the next steps include geotechnical and other studies of the site, and that if all goes well, construction would begin by late this year, with the array “fully connected and energized” by the second quarter of 2018, which he called a conservative time estimate.