Las Cruces solar farm will produce enough power for 2,000 homes

Sunflowers are known for their ability to track the sun across its east-west arc through the sky.

An array of solar panels west of Las Cruces will do the same.

City officials on Tuesday inaugurated a 12-megawatt solar-power generating plant just south of the Love’s truck stop on Interstate 10.

Dubbed the Las Cruces Centennial Solar Farm, the plant is expected to produce enough electricity to power about 2,000 homes a year, according to an estimate by El Paso Electric Co.

The 48,900 solar panels are grouped in bunches and mounted on about 2,200 mechanized stands, officials said. Like the sunflower, they follow the sun across the sky.

The ability to maximize power-generating capacity by tracking the sun is one of several reasons the plant is expected to be among the most productive solar plants run by the Maryland-based SunEdison and possibly one of the most productive in North America for its size, said Tim Derrick, vice president of global services for SunEdison North America.

Other factors favoring the plant include the abundance of sunny days, a relatively high elevation and plenty of wind; the latter two attributes will help keep the solar panels cooler than they’d otherwise be, Derrick said.

“This is a unique location,” he said. “The sun is our fuel, and you have very abundant fuel in Doca Ana County.”

SunEdison spearheaded construction of the $50 million capital project and will continue as its operator. It’s owned by PNC Bank, a national bank.

In addition, SunEdison has a 25-year contract with El Paso Electric Co., which has pledged to buy the plant’s electricity.

Electric company officials touted the project as one of a handful in Doca Ana County that are helping achieve a state standard, which requires electric companies to supply 20 percent of power through alternative energy sources by 2020.

“By 2020, it’s 20 percent of our New Mexico load” that has to come from alternative energy sources, said Rocky Miracle, senior vice president of corporate planning and development for El Paso Electric.

With the new solar plant, El Paso Electric Co. reaches the 3 percent mark, meaning about 37 megawatts is derived from renewable sources, Miracle said.

The new plant will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to El Paso Electric. It will offset emissions equivalent to about 4,400 vehicles a year.

In comparison, one of El Paso Electric Co.’s main plants, the Newman Power Station, which is mostly powered by natural gas, generates about 485 megawatts, Miracle said.

Against a backdrop of hundreds of solar panels, Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima and Davin Lopez, executive director of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, flipped an oversize light switch to ceremonially mark the plant’s start.

Derrick said the plant actually went online in mid-May. A second, “almost-identical” plant, also spearheaded by SunEdison, is about to go online in Chaparral, he said.

Between the two plants, about four or five permanent jobs will be generated, Derrick said.

The company plans to contract out for other services, such as washing the panels.

Lopez said it would take the establishment of more solar-power plants before a solar-panel manufacturer might decide to locate in the area.

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