For five generations, cattle have grazed on the Wagon Rock Ranch north of Kirtland during winter months, but now that range has a new purpose: solar generation.
Thousands of posts dot the landscape, many of which have boxes of solar panels beside them, waiting to be installed.
John and Joye McHenry, the landowners, attended a groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday for the San Juan Solar project, which will supply 200 megawatts of clean energy to the Public Service Company of New Mexico to help replace electricity from the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, which closed last year.
Their family is no stranger to the energy industry. Wagon Rock Ranch has entered into lease agreements for oil, gas and coal projects. The ranch existed before the smoke stacks and coal mine.
“We’ve been dealing with oil and gas leases, coal leases, and now solar leases for three generations. So it just was part of the next step in the progress,” Joye McHenry said.
John McHenry said the groundbreaking was an emotional moment.
He said that as they listened to people talking about the project he leaned over to his wife and said, “Imagine we used to sit on a horse and look out across the landscape and see our cattle.”
Joye McHenry said that when they rode horses out onto the landscape, they would rarely see anyone out there. Every once in a while, they would see a mine worker from the nearby San Juan Mine.
The McHenrys will no longer be grazing cattle. That was a hard decision to make. He said it is hard to not be doing what his parents did, but, at the same time, he said he also knows that they would have made the same decision.
The lease is providing the McHenrys with more money than cattle brought in.
Ranching was becoming more challenging due to drought.
“The drought was the beginning of the end,” John McHenry said.
Now the San Juan Solar project has provided employment and economic development to San Juan County and the Navajo Nation, which is located just west of the property.
The McHenrys expressed happiness in knowing that their property can have a positive impact.
In addition to the 200 megawatts of solar power, the facility will have 100 megawatts of battery storage.
The project is also expected to expand in the future. When fully constructed, the project owner—D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, plans to provide 400 megawatts of clean power to the grid.
Thomas de Swardt, chief commercial officer at DESRI, said the company is investing more than $500 million into the project.
“When we look at opportunities the central question we always ask is does this project just make sense?” he said. “Is this the right place to build a solar farm or a wind farm or a battery project? Does it fit with the needs of the local community, with the power grid and the transmission system, and the off taker and their end customer, the ratepayer? Are we bringing a real and credible solution to the needs of our community and partners here in New Mexico? And really looking here today, this project just knocks it out of the park on all of those dimensions.”
He noted that the smoke stacks from the shuttered power plant could be seen behind him and said that DESRI is reusing the transmission capacity that is available at the closed generating station.
“We’re able to find very high quality local labor right here in the region that has years of experience in electricity generation,” he said. “And we all know the tradition of power generation across this region over the years. For what it’s worth, the vast majority of the workforce here is locally sourced, we’re very proud of that.
Many of those workers are Navajo.
In addition to that workforce and the infrastructure already in place, De Swardt said the relatively level ground and the abundant sunlight made the location ideal for solar.
While the San Juan Solar project has employed hundreds of local workers, state Rep. Mark Duncan, a Republican who is also the mayor of Kirtland, said he wished the employment wasn’t temporary in nature. Still, he praised the project.
“This is a good day. As a citizen, it’s a good day because the county, the schools and the college are made whole,” he said. “We’re grateful for that investment. And it’s a huge investment.”
When the Public Service Company of New Mexico announced plans to close the San Juan Generating Station, the young Town of Kirtland—which incorporated only about a year before that announcement—grew concerned about loss of tax base to support the schools as well as lost employment opportunities.
The San Juan Solar project helped alleviate some of those impacts.
George Hershman, chief executive officer of Solv Energy, said those jobs are not as temporary as they initially appear. Solv Energy is the solar contractor for the San Juan Solar project.
He said the region has the potential to become a solar hub.
“We’ve seen this in many areas where we build project after project after project, and it creates long term jobs,” he said. “And so we have areas of the country where we’ve been building projects for 10 years. And so when people say that construction projects are only temporary, I will tell you that people in those regions don’t think it’s temporary. They’ve been working on solar projects for the last 10 years.”
Brian Anderson, the executive director of the Biden Administration’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Coal and Power Plant Communities, also spoke at the groundbreaking.
“I really applaud the state of New Mexico and their Energy Transition Act, not only for its vision to look to the future, but to make sure that workers, communities are not left behind,” he said.
The San Juan Solar project is a direct result of the Energy Transition Act, which required at least a portion of the replacement power to be located in the Central Consolidated School District once the San Juan Generating Station closed. The Energy Transition Act also led to the power plant being replaced with renewable energy rather than natural gas generation as was initially proposed.