The (slowly) changing face of energy country


Change often comes quickly to energy country. Take Williston, N.D., at the heart of an oil boom which has more than doubled the state's oil production since 2008. Williston mayor Ward Koeser recently told NPR that in just a few years' time, the town's population has grown from 12,000 to an estimated 20,000. And he guessed there are currently up to 3,000 jobs still waiting to be filled. The New Yorker reported this spring that, "Oil companies have booked motels within two hours’ drive (of the Williston Basin) for a year in advance; last summer, relocated workers converted the lawn of a town park into a tent city."

Paradigm shifts, however, come much more slowly. That theme united a slew of Southwestern renewable energy hot spots that I traipsed through recently with 13 other journalists. We were led by our intrepid hosts, Frank and Maggie Allen of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, a non-profit that takes journalists on tours that immerse them in various regions' environmental issues.

We visited a number of communities that are anxious to help lead the renewable energy revolution. But boy is it tough to do. Consider Jemez Pueblo, home to a tiny northern New Mexico tribe whose only revenue sources are a gift shop and a gas station. We visited the pueblo to learn about its geothermal potential -- they will soon drill a test well for a utility scale project -- and a four megawatt solar farm it has on the drawing board. In the grand scheme of things, that's a tiny solar project. But it would be the first commercial scale, grid-tied solar farm in the country on Indian land -- widely touted for its renewable potential -- and it's more or less shovel ready. But the tribe has to find a buyer for the power it would produce before they can begin construction, and that's proved elusive. Carolyn Stewart of Red Mountain Energy Partners, a tribal energy consultant, told us that it comes down to this: Coal-fired power is still really cheap. And though utilities do have renewable portfolio standards to meet, progress toward those goals has been slow and enforcement mechanisms are lackluster.

Our group got a statewide perspective on the progress of renewable development at Santa Fe Community College, where we heard from a panel of renewable energy advocates, a transmission developer, a tribal energy expert, and Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the state's largest utility. These folks are not all friends. Mariel Nanasi, who heads up the renewable advocacy group New Energy Economy, was unbashful about her belief that PNM, with its fondness for cheap coal, was the chief obstacle to bringing more solar and wind power online in New Mexico. PNM placed the blame instead on high upfront costs, storage issues, and the lack of transmission capacity. What nobody disputed was that despite a lot of talk, New Mexico has barely scratched the surface of its renewable potential.

In Colorado's San Luis Valley, solar power has already gained a real foothold, though like in so many places,  solar farms won't continue to sprout here without new transmission lines. We visited a 30 megawatt installation built by Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables that will soon go online. There, 10,000 shiny new panels rose from dirt that used to grow carrots and potatoes. It was symbolic of a deeper transformation underway in this particular valley. Irrigators have drawn down the valley's aquifer dramatically. Because that aquifer is hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande, their pumping is affecting downstream waters users with rights to the river's flow. And the valley's farmers will soon have to answer for it. "The amount of land we need to dry up is a lot," Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen told us, reminding us that the San Luis Valley gets less rain than Phoenix. When he started thinking about how the county could replace the revenue it would lose from fallowed acreage, he saw an opportunity in solar -- and so did developers.

A paradigm shift is afoot in the San Luis Valley, with water at its root. How big an opportunity it will ultimately present to energy producers remains to be seen. What is certain is that navigating the water-scarce future won't be easy for the valley's residents, many of whom come from families that have worked this unforgiving land for generations. "If agriculture goes away, we have nothing left," said Steve Vandiver, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photo: Iberdrola's shiny new solar farm in the San Luis Valley.

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