Company works toward building community solar project near Eldorado – AOL

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April 13, 2024 at 11:34 PM

Apr. 13—Solar panels could pop up on about 30 acres of vacant land in the Eldorado area within a year, an outcome of state leaders’ push for renewable energy.

After lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 enacting the New Mexico Community Solar Program, intended to make renewable energy more accessible, the Denver-based company SunShare began looking for sites to build community solar farms across the state.

One such site the company identified: A parcel of vacant land at 100 Rancho Verano Road, next to the Santa Fe Rail Trail and about one mile south of Avenida Eldorado. The parcel is south of the area governed by the Eldorado Community Improvement Association, a homeowners association.

The site lies next to a Public Service Company of New Mexico substation, which will lower costs to build the project, said SunShare development director Salina Derichsweiler. Derichsweiler said the proposed location in a residential area is an added benefit because “that’s part of what community solar is, really helping people understand where their energy comes from.”

Community solar programs allow utility customers to buy subscriptions to small solar projects in return for credits off their monthly utility bills. The programs aim to allow people otherwise unable to access the benefits of solar energy, such as renters or people who cannot afford the up-front costs of solar panels, to participate in the transition to renewable energy.

The New Mexico Community Solar Act requires companies operating the solar farms to carve out at least 30% of the electricity produced from each farm for low-income customers. Community solar projects generally save subscribers at least 10% per year on their electricity bills over the 25- to 40-year lifespan of the projects, a 2021 fact sheet from the state Legislature said.

SunShare was one of several companies InClime, a renewable energy-affiliated company administering the New Mexico Community Solar Program with the state Public Regulation Commission, selected last year to build community solar farms in New Mexico. InClime awarded SunShare six projects, including its “Juniper Sol” project near Eldorado.

The company bought a 50-acre parcel of land — 26 acres of which would have solar panels, surrounded by a 7-foot-fence, as proposed — in August and is now working to get signatures from surrounding residents to change neighborhood covenants governing the area. The covenants, which date back to the 1990s, allow only residential uses of the land; a change would carve out an exception for a solar array.

Owners of at least 75% of the land governed by the covenants — which includes SunShare, with its 50-acre parcel — must agree to the change, Derichsweiler said. That means about 35 to 40 residents need to agree to the project, and the company is “90% or 95% of the way there,” she said, describing neighbors as “very supportive of the work we’re doing.” SunShare expects to meet the required threshold soon, she said.

A letter from SunShare provided by a resident offered neighbors who approved the project the incentive of a free subscription to the solar garden, which could save them an expected 85% on their electricity bill for up to 25 years, the letter said.

The state Public Regulation Commission is still determining the rate at which community solar subscribers will be reimbursed for the solar energy generated, which should be finalized by the end of the month, Derichsweiler said.

Anyone who receives a bill from PNM could subscribe to the community solar garden, if approved, but the project is expected to first attract interest from people living nearby, Derichsweiler said. The 5-megawatt project should power an estimated 400 homes, though that number could fluctuate between 250 to 700, depending on the amount of power each subscriber uses.

Residents have had a lot of questions about how the community solar project compares with a much larger project proposed by AES Clean Energy in the vicinity that has spurred significant opposition, Derichsweiler said.

Linda Bramlette, a 25-year nearby resident who declined to sign SunShare’s petition to change neighborhood covenants, said she doesn’t “know enough about the project to consent,” given the host environmental-related concerns people have raised about the larger AES solar project.

“What would that [project] mean when it comes time to sell my home?” she said, noting the site sits outside the stricter homeowners association covenants of Eldorado at Santa Fe, which surrounds her house on three sides.

Eldorado Community Improvement Association board President Amelia Adair said she had not heard of SunShare’s project, but given the sheer volume of concerns the homeowner’s association has received about AES’s solar project, “I’m sure people will want to drill into the details of it and whether it’s friend or foe.

“We’re a very environmentally sensitive community, I will tell you that,” Adair added. Eldorado was originally developed as a solar community — one of the first in the country, she said.

One key difference, Derichsweiler said, is the community solar project would not include battery storage, eliminating the associated fire risk.

Other neighbors have asked about noise and environmental effects of the panels.

A solar project of the size proposed will generate very little noise — about 58 decibels, Derichsweiler said, which is roughly the equivalent of a household refrigerator.

All energy sources come with possible risks to the environment, she said. Energy leaders like the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted solar panels often incorporate heavy metals harmful to the environment if leaked and thus must be carefully disposed of at the end of their useful life.

Derichsweiler said SunShare is not only committed to properly decommissioning the panels after 25 to 30 years but also aims to improve the health of soil on the site by combining agriculture and solar energy generation, a movement called agrivoltaics. That will involve seeding the land at Juniper Sol with native grasses and collaborating with the New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group to develop plans for the site, she said.

Camilla Brom, a Rancho San Marcos resident who started a grassroots group called New Mexicans for Responsible Renewable Energy in opposition to AES’s project, expressed tentative support for SunShare’s.

It’s important people understand the difference between community solar and utility-scale solar, Brom said. Community solar projects with smaller acreage and without batteries minimize environmental hazards. Also, she said, community solar benefits the subscribers, whereas savings from utility-scale projects simply factor into utility rates.

“I’m not an expert on community solar,” said Brom, who did not know the details of SunShare’s project, but “from what I know, that’s the way we should be doing things.”

People will have further opportunity to comment on the project when SunShare applies for a conditional use permit from Santa Fe County, Derichsweiler said. If approved, SunShare hopes to begin a two-to-four-month construction process on the solar project late this year or in early 2025.

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