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NMSU breaks ground on new solar power project

Aggie Power equipment sits idle while construction crews wait on permits from the New Mexico Department of Transportation. Once completed, the solar array will power approximately one-third of the NMSU campus. (Photo by Carlos Lujan/Kokopelli)

After years of planning, New Mexico State University has begun construction of the Aggie Power project, a solar facility that will power one-third of the Las Cruces campus.

The facility is being created in partnership with El Paso Electric, and will include a three-megawatt generating solar array and two single-megawatt Tesla batteries. The batteries will be used to store and provide power for the campus when the sun is not shinning or when the plant is not fully operational.

Located on the southeast corner of campus near NMSU’s Arrowhead Park, the project will be constructed by Affordable Solar, a company out of Albuquerque that offers solar installation services. Currently, the perimeter fence and groundwork are being completed. Much of the buildout should be finished by the summer.

Wayne Savage, executive director of Arrowhead Research Park, explained that delivery of a key piece of electrical switchgear has been delayed, pushing the expected project completion date back to fall 2021. Even with the delay, Savage indicated he is optimistic about the new facility.

“It was agreed that both NMSU and El Paso Electric could benefit from a partnership in not only renewable energy, but also in research efforts focused on what the electric grid and the future needs to look like,” Savage said.

“With our own turbine and this solar plant, we will be able to meet most of the needs of our campus, and it is another good step toward our zero-carbon footprint.”

Upon completion, the project will be utilized to conduct research toward introducing renewable energy on a larger scale, according to Savage. Unlike non-renewable sources, solar panels can’t generate power at night, making their implementation into the power grid challenging.

“Coal and gas-powered generators produce continuous power day and night, and these renewable intermittent sources do not,” Savage said. “The challenge has been how do we balance these other power generating systems with the intermittent renewable ones.”

NMSU already has a history of moving toward more environmentally friendly and efficient ways of generating power. The campus has its own power-generating wind turbine and thermal storage facility that creates ice at night and provides cooling for the campus during the day. Savage explained that creating ice at night is much less expensive.

“With our own turbine and this solar plant, we will be able to meet most of the needs of our campus, and it is another good step toward our zero-carbon footprint,” Savage said. “I think there’s enough belief and enough momentum in the country right now to keep us moving toward reducing our carbon footprint.”

Aggie Power, along with the new EPE partnership, can also help reduce strain on the power grid by redirecting energy during the summer months when students are on vacation. This agreement allows NMSU to provide power for its surrounding community while generating revenue for the school. Systems like this allow Las Cruces’ and El Paso’s shared power grid to withstand harsh temperatures, like the winter freeze that left millions of Texans without power in February 2021.

“The key to [success] is being a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency, so these types of efforts are critical to our future,” Savage said. “In theory, if we do it right, no one will notice.”

NMSU students have also expressed optimism about the project. Alfonso Pesqueira, an engineering student, was glad to hear that the project is underway.

“I think it’s a really good thing that the university is moving more toward renewable energy,” Pesqueira said. “It seems like a good cost-effective move and it will help the school stand out more.”

Another NMSU student, Jaime Martinez, is also glad to hear about the project.

“I think it’s a great idea that NMSU decided to move on to solar energy because at some point in the future everyone will be moving to solar energy,” Martinez said. “They should work on getting solar to the entire campus.”

Both hope that the majority of students on campus share their views after renewable energy was wrongly blamed for the power crisis in Texas.

“I think this will help raise awareness to what renewable energy is capable of,” Martinez said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated in the photo caption that a switchgear delay is the reason construction equipment “sits idle.” In fact, construction is currently on hold because crews are awaiting permits from the New Mexico Department of Transportation. 

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