NRG Energy unveils 20 megawatt solar power plant in New Mexico

The plant’s rows and rows of 190,000 black, photovoltaic solar panels produce enough power to supply 6,600 homes for El Paso Electric, which buys all of the plant’s electricity under a 20-year contract with New Jersey-based NRG Energy. It’s one of the nation’s largest developers and operators of power plants, and now one of the largest developers of solar plants.

The Roadrunner Solar Generating Station, located near the Santa Teresa port of entry, began supplying electricity about a month ago. But NRG had a grand opening ceremony Friday for government and business officials.

It’s the second-largest photovoltaic solar panel plant in New Mexico, and among several large utility-scale solar plants now operating in the nation.

"This is good, clean, noise-free, no-pollution energy," Tim Hemig, vice president of development for NRG Solar, the California-based subsidiary of NRG Energy, told a group of government and business officials underneath a white tent with the vast array of solar panels in the background.

"The other thing that is really cool about solar energy is that it produces that power at the peak part of the day when people need it," Hemig said.

El Paso Electric CEO David Stevens told the small crowd that the Santa Teresa plant and a 5-megawatt solar plant in Hatch, N.M., are

"the flagships for us on our journey to solar energy."

El Paso Electric plans to have a total of 50 megawatts of solar power sources by the end of next year. That will be about 3 percent of its total power generation, he said. Two other New Mexico solar plants are in the planning stages for the company, he said.

The plants are helping El Paso Electric meet New Mexico requirements of having a percentage of its power come from solar, wind or geothermal sources. Texas has less-stringent requirements.

NRG would like to expand the Santa Teresa plant in the future on an adjacent 200 acres it has an option to buy from Verde Realty, Hemig said.

Stevens said after the ceremony that the company wants to let the Santa Teresa plant run a while before it looks at the possibility of committing to buying more power, which would require NRG to expand the plant.

Hemig said NRG also could look for another utility to buy solar power, which would allow it to add another solar plant in Santa Teresa. "El Paso Electric is the natural buyer" for facilities in Santa Teresa, but transmission lines are available to send electricity to other utilities in the future, Hemig said after the ceremony.

Jon Barela, New Mexico economic development secretary-designate, said the Santa Teresa plant could help attract other solar projects to Southern New Mexico, including to the Santa Teresa area.

"We (state government) will do everything we can to assist with that," Barela said after the ceremony.

Hemig and Stevens said the solar plant is operating well so far. Its production is boosted by a system in which panels track the sun. The panels face east in the morning and then slowly move throughout the day until they are facing west at sunset.

The panels were made by First Solar Inc., a Phoenix-area company which built the Santa Teresa plant and operates it for NRG.

It took nine months and about 200 construction workers to build the plant. But it takes only one worker and a couple of security guards to operate it, said Matt Merfert, a First Solar executive who managed construction of the plant.

The low labor requirement is one of the advantages of solar power compared with more-traditional power plants, he said.

"Now that this project is actually installed, it’s proof positive that solar electricity on a large scale is not a futuristic concept," Merfert said during the ceremony. "It’s here, it’s in our backyards producing clean energy, and it’s growing."

First Solar will build 1.6 giga watts of solar projects in 2012, Merfert said. That’s more power than a nuclear power plant produces, he said.

It’s building a 290-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant near Yuma, Ariz., for NRG. It will be the world’s largest photovoltaic solar panel plant in the world when it’s completed in 2014.

"Take this (Santa Teresa plant) and multiply it by 14," and that’s the size of the Yuma project, Merfert said.

Barela, the New Mexico economic development secretary-designate, said the Santa Teresa project and other solar projects are important to New Mexico and this region.

"But in the long term, projects like this are important to the economic future of this country," Barela said during the ceremony. "Our country needs an all of the above energy approach."

Vic Kolenc,