A shining example: Center unveils new solar energy system

By Steve Ramirez/Sun-News reporter

Article Launched: 04/17/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

LAS CRUCES — Although many of the approximately 100 Las Cruces residents gathered under a tree Wednesday to acknowledge the inauguration of a 6 kilowatt commercial solar energy system, it was the sunshine they were celebrating.

“This is a historic occasion,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, where the system is now operating. “This is the first business application of this kind and we’re very proud of that.”

Governor Bill Richardson

Rep. Antonio Lujan, left, and Gov. Bill Richardson assist one another Wednesday in cutting a paper chain in honor of the first photovoltaic system in operation in the city of Las Cruces at the Southwest Environmental Center of Las Cruces. (Sun-News photo by Shari Vialpando)

So were elected state and city leaders, including Gov. Bill Richardson, who spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the photovoltaic system.

“We have to wean ourselves away from petroleum and fossil fuels,” Richardson said. “We are a natural to do that. The state can be the center of renewable fuels, and Las Cruces and southern New Mexico can be the center of that because of abundant sunshine and wind, and cooperation between the community and New Mexico State University.”

The photovoltaic system, installed by NMSU staff and students with the Institute of Energy and Environment, which is part of the university’s College of Engineering, will be capable of generating 11,000 kilowatt hours a year. The Southwest Environmental Center will sell the electricity through a 20-year purchased power agreement with El Paso Electric Co.

“We do need to take advantage of the sun we have,” said city Councilor Miguel Silva. “…It’s time we stop poking in the past, we need to be part of the future. A system like this is what the future is all about.”

Sandy Jones, vice chairman of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, couldn’t emphasize that point enough during an “Open Office Hours” session he and PRC staff conducted Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.

“Obviously, this country has to move toward alternative energy fuels,” Jones said. “…The problem is it’s not the cheapest right now. We have to make it affordable.”

Jones also provided an update on a PRC investigation into electricity rates charged by El Paso Electric. About a year ago, Jones asked for the investigation after rates skyrocketed for approximately 80,000 El Paso Electric customers in southern New Mexico, most who live or work in Las Cruces.

Jones said the investigation is on hold because of rate cases currently pending before the PRC, particularly rate requests sought by Public Service Co. of New Mexico and Southwest Public Service Co.

“We’re basically not moving it forward right now,” said Jones of the investigation. “The PRC staff is simply overloaded right now with rate cases. But hopefully, we can get some room in May where we can pick it up.”

Jones added he knew the investigation and any potential resolution wouldn’t happen quickly.

“This is going to be a while,” he said. “From the start I realized this would take a while to get through this.”

Steve Ramirez can be reached at sramirez@lcsun-news.com

A closer look

• Las Cruces’ first commercial photovoltaic system is now in operation.
• The 6-kilowatt system has been installed on the roof of the Southwest Environmental Center, 575 N. Downtown Mall.
• The system will generate about 11,000 kilowatt hours of renewable energy every year.
• Assuming an average home uses 500 kilowatt hours a month, or 6,000 kilowatt hours a year, this project is capable of providing enough energy to power two homes a year.

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