How Northern NM College’s El Rito Campus is going solar
Mohammad Ali Musawi
If you regularly make the journey north on NM 554, next winter part of the landscape you are used to seeing will begin to change. Upon entering El Rito, instead of scattered chamisa and sage, you will be greeted by about 4,000 shimmering blue and silver solar panels that could well be mistaken for a body of water from a distance.
The solar array, which will sit on seven acres on the Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) campus in El Rito, is part of an ambitious six-year plan by Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, Inc. (KCEC) and Guzman Renewable Energy Partners (GREP), to provide KCEC customers with 100 percent solar energy on sunny days. The plan entails building 35 one-megawatt solar arrays throughout KCEC’s coverage area. Seven arrays, including in El Rito, are scheduled to be built in 2017.
NNMC’s El Rito campus has been under-utilized for several years due to a variety of factors, including high utility costs. Utilities were not getting any cheaper, and the college, with consecutive state funding cuts, was not getting any richer. However, as the adage goes, with darkness comes light, and an opportunity presented itself in the form of sunlight.
“When I took the job as president of Northern New Mexico College in October 2016, one of the most important issues I heard from our community was that we had to find a way to bring life back to our El Rito campus,” said Dr. Richard J. Bailey. “Many people told me that the biggest obstacle to progress was the cost of utilities, so we had to explore ways to lower our energy footprint by embracing opportunities in renewable energy,” said Bailey, a retired Air Force officer who lives in El Rito.
John Ussery, a renewable-energy advocate and friend of Bailey’s, told him about KCEC’s solar plans and encouraged him to meet with the company that powers El Rito campus. Within the first couple of weeks on the job, Bailey met Luís Reyes, Kit Carson’s CEO, at one of his co-op outreach sessions. “I made it clear that the college was very interested in anything we could do to partner with KCEC on renewable energy,” said Bailey. Recognizing that such a project would dramatically decrease electricity costs in the long-term; not only for the campus, but the whole town of El Rito and the wider KCEC service area, Bailey pitched El Rito campus as a possible solar array site.
Bailey took the idea to El Rito community during a public forum held at the campus in February 2017, where he asked 75 of the college’s neighbors for permission to proceed with the array. “The support was unanimous,” Bailey said. “The community was excited that the college was taking serious steps to embracing renewable energy because they know that it’s a first step to revitalizing the campus.”
Several meetings among the college, KCEC and Guzman Renewable Energy Partners were then held, and on May 6, 2017, KCEC officially announced the campus as one of its solar array sites. “I think that all schools, including universities and colleges, should have most of their energy come from renewable energy,” said KCEC Chief Executive Officer Luís Reyes. “I believe that placing an array on El Rito campus may be one of several solutions to revitalize the campus and give more rural New Mexicans opportunities for higher education.”
The energy company hopes to have the array operational by early fall 2017.
Bailey also envisions the solar array as an opportunity for educational collaboration between NNMC and KCEC. “The partnership could result in NNMC’s engineering students receiving hands-on training from one of the most cutting-edge energy companies in New Mexico,” he said. Reyes agrees. “KCEC sees the opportunity for collaboration on training, internships and potential job opportunities in solar and battery careers,” he said.
For NNMC’s President Bailey, seeing gleaming solar panels on his daily commute will be a welcome sight.
Mohammad Ali Musawi is a New Mexico-based journalist and staff writer/reporter at Northern New Mexico College.