Solar Farms Still a Thing in ‘Solar Valley’ As Offices Begin to Torch the Sun

Some places offer brighter prospects than others for space for solar farms.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has more rooftops than any city in the country, and great sunshine in winter and fall, which could mean a solar boom for the Southwest.

But there’s an odd side effect: airport towers are blocking the sun’s rays, thus limiting the resources available for solar farms.

Albuquerque International Sunport, nestled within the city’s sprawling industrial park, towers over much of the region with their reflective aluminum lenses.

Portales Regional Airport, south of Portales, New Mexico, is located amid fields of cotton, wheat, wheat straw, lentils, sunflowers, sunflowers and corn. The absence of solar farms and buildings means the sun’s rays aren’t hitting the nearby crop fields, making ground-mounted solar installations a problem.

Other conditions in the region, like 2 feet of snow and wind, pose significant logistical challenges to even partial development. The International Space Station, a 17-ton space lab the size of a football field, plays a role in the problem.

Airport towers on highways, and other structures, block the sun’s rays on the ground, thereby limiting the output from solar farms.

“We’re really trying to promote economic development, and when it’s a real tough economic climate … the solutions are very, very elusive,” said Jay Gardea, president of Solar Clean Energy, an Albuquerque-based non-profit that is working to build a solar farm in the area.

His company is working with San Juan Generating Station, a 460-megawatt power plant that is located near the Alamogordo mountain range about 80 miles southwest of Albuquerque.

Gardea says that though there are a variety of challenges for rooftop solar, the amount of rooftops in the Southwest could be ten times greater than it is in New York City. There are areas in the West where the region’s soil supports solar rooftops better than others.

Commercial power projects with 1,000 to 5,000 kilowatts installed cost about $150 million per megawatt and up, Gardea said.

Albuquerque, once a prairie town, grew up alongside the last piece of good land on the desert continent. Then came highways, mills, and airports. Although the city has grown, it was a commuter city until the 1950s, when the Gateway to the West Highway was constructed.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Southwest used to be considered a prime spot for energy development.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon signed the National Solar Act into law, and the Southwest was deemed a solar energy priority area.

Several utilities got federal funding and developed projects in the early 1970s with the intent of using solar to build power plants. They called it the “Solar Valley” plan.

Around this time, Lyndon Rive and his brother Daniel, who are now co-founders of SolarCity, developed a business plan and found first-of-its-kind financing for large-scale solar projects.

The plan was for the companies to buy the land and then lease it back to leaseholders from the different coal-burning power plants owned by the utility companies.

But the plan fell through when it was discovered that in order to develop and implement the business plan, the power plants would need government incentives.

“When the solar Valley plan fell through, the industry was a little lost,” said John Frohlich, who worked on projects around the Southwest in the 1970s and 1980s.

There was no coordination of state-level support, he said. “We never had any kind of build-out and boom-type of industry.”

If you don’t believe that this region of the country was once the solar power epicenter, your first look is your local town, like Portales, New Mexico.

The small gateway to the American Southwest is housed inside New Mexico’s largest airport, the Portales Regional Airport.

There are fewer solar plants than there used to be in this region because it took several decades, people say, for rooftop solar to become a viable option in the Southwest.

“It takes time, an awful lot of patience and perseverance,” said Roy Bridges, founder of the Energy Research Institute at Black Hills State University.

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