The linchpin to a national supergrid

Clovis, New Mexico, may link three grids and become a renewable energy hub.

 

At first glance, Clovis, New Mexico, doesn’t seem to be the middle of anything but nowhere. The surrounding landscape is so flat that one could see trees 10 miles away in Farwell, Texas, if there were any trees. Downtown has a certain worn-down, Last Picture Show-like charm, but many of the storefronts are empty, the victim of big box stores outside the town’s center. And then there’s the smell, an indicator that Clovis, population 38,000 actually is the center of something — the state’s burgeoning dairy industry. In fact, Clovis is kind of famous. Remnants of some of the first human beings to roam North America, or “Clovis Man,” were found nearby. And Norman Petty’s music studio, where Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and other rock 'n' roll greats had their albums produced, was located here.

Clovis, a town of 38,000 in far eastern New Mexico, could be the centerpoint of a national supergrid, and a renewable energy hub.
Jonathan Thompson

Now, Clovis may become famous as the center of something else: A unified, national electrical grid.

If all goes according to plan, ground will be broken in coming months on a vast electrical city of sorts, covering as much ground as Clovis itself, on state-owned land a dozen miles north of town. Tres Amigas, as it’s called, will, for the first time, provide a real link between the three discrete North American electrical grids: the Western, Eastern and ERCOT, or Texas, Interconnections.

That linkage would potentially turn the three grids into one giant one, and it could change the way power is bought and sold. “Conceptually it’s going to send things in an interesting, and new and important direction,” said David Mooney, center director at the National Renewable Energy Labs in Golden, Colorado. “It has the potential of taking very large solar farms (in the Southwest) and taking that power at the peak of its output and shipping that power back east as the sun is starting to go down and utilities are seeing their peak demands.”

If it ever gets built, that is. I traveled to Clovis two years ago to report on this ambitious project — an electrical toll bridge, some call it, or the “Golden Spike” of the grid. At the time, ground breaking was imminent, and we held off on running the story until things progressed. Construction was delayed, then delayed again. In June of 2013 I ran into Tres Amigas CEO Phil Harris at an energy conference in Albuquerque, as the company was about to launch its major financing push, and he said he expected to break ground by the following spring. It didn’t happen. The latest round of predictions had construction starting by the end of this year, when critical deadlines for connecting to the grid will pass. But when I contacted Tres Amigas on Dec. 1, no groundbreaking date had been set.

The delays reveal how difficult it is to raise cash — some $550 million — to build a project that carries rather than generates electricity, even if the project has the potential to be one of the most critical parts of the grid. Tres Amigas would provide not only a physical link between the three grids, but also a real-time exchange system by which utilities and power producers could buy and sell power on a short-term market. That would provide more options for a utility looking for backup power when demand increases substantially, for example, or when intermittent power sources like wind or solar experience natural fluctuations.

While the Clovis facility will be the actual hub through which electricity flows, the project also includes an equally critical marketing hub, where sales of electricity will be brokered on the very short term. “It will be like a commodity exchange,” says Chief Operating Officer Dave Stidham. “(Advanced software) will allow us to make thousands of transactions instantaneously across the Grid. You’ll be able to detect deals and enact them instantaneously. If all of a sudden the price (of electricity) goes up in Nebraska, and the sun’s shining in California (on solar plants), we’ll broker that deal and transfer that power.”
Tres Amigas, if it gets built, will be on state land about 12 miles outside of Clovis - very flat, mostly featureless land, that is.
Jonathan Thompson

Tres Amigas will cover 22 square miles of state-owned land, and is expected to employ some 300 workers during its construction. That will make it one of Clovis' biggest employers, along with the BNSF railroad, Southwest Cheese, and Cannon Air Force Base. When construction is complete, the workforce will diminish substantially, but the project's multi-phase buildout will take years. Clovis originally thought it would get the headquarters and trading floor, too, but that migrated westward to Albuquerque. Clovis simply doesn’t have the amenities to attract the 50 or so professionals needed to run the marketing hub.

Company officials originally considered basing the project in Amarillo, Texas, because, like Clovis, Amarillo is located near where the three grids intersect, and that state has embraced wind power along with the transmission needed to move it around. But officials in New Mexico, where the economy is still struggling from the effects of the Recession, were desperate to entice the project onto their side of the state line. So the state, the City of Clovis, and Bernalillo County (where the headquarters will be located) offered the company generous tax breaks and incentives as a lure. It worked.

When I met with Gene Hendricks, economic development specialist for Clovis Industrial Development Corporation, at his organization’s downtown Clovis office (which doubles as the Norman & Vi Petty Rock and Roll Museum), he was clearly disappointed by the loss of the headquarters from his community. Still, he was optimistic about the project and its impact. The expansive, mostly flat landscape is already desirable for wind and solar producers. Tres Amigas will provide a way for them to hook into not just one, but three grids, with access to millions of potential customers (assuming, that is, that adequate transmission is in place to connect Tres Amigas to the bigger Western Grid). That, in turn, could draw other alternative energy businesses — compressed air power storage, for example, or big battery banks, to the area.

Back in December 2012, at least, Hendricks seemed to think Clovis could someday become as well known for clean power as it is for dairies and Buddy Holly. Who knows, maybe when — or if — Tres Amigas is built, it will provide a catalyst for capturing the methane emitted by the dairies and their thousands of bovine residents, and converting it into electricity to power homes in far off cities.

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Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.