The City Renewable

Albuquerque Has The Potential To Lead The Way In Renewable Energy—So What Are We Doing To Make It A Reality?

Laura Paskus
13 min read
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If the city's politicians can turn policy into reality, Albuquerque could someday be The City Renewable.

There are plenty of obvious reasons why Albuquerque could become a leader in the renewable energy field: It's almost always sunny here in the Land of Enchantment, underground volcanic activity means opportunity for geothermal projects, and the wind blows strong and often on the plains and mesas. There are also obvious reasons why city leaders would want to jump on the renewable bandwagon: ridiculously high natural gas prices, the environmental and health costs associated with burning fossil fuels and—if you believe “peak oil” predictions—a dwindling oil supply. Add to all these factors the presence of the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories, and Albuquerque should be considered nothing short of Mecca for renewable energy businesses.

In the past 10 years, the city has made strides to become more efficient and has cut its energy consumption by more than 10 percent. Today, it's replacing traditional 150-watt traffic signals with 15-watt LED lights, relying increasingly on hybrid vehicles, and trying out new projects, such as using used truck oil to heat the city's maintenance garages. “With the cost of gas right now, it's almost a brilliant idea,” says Gene Bustamante, an energy specialist with the city. “And the pollution is almost nonexistent.”

Encouraging Albuquerque residents to get more of their energy from the sun, wind, geothermal or biomass is about more than reducing dependence on fossil fuels. It's also about giving a boost to the local economy, drawing high wage jobs to Albuquerque and saving the city money, says outgoing City Councilor Eric Griego. The United States is obviously in the midst of an energy crisis, he says, which could provide a new opportunity for Albuquerque. “If we can get out in front of this,” says Griego, “we'll be the leaders in a new economy.”

Now, after spending a year talking with business owners within the renewable energy industry and groups such as the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, Griego introduced the City Renewable Energy Initiative before the City Council. On Sept. 19, the Council passed the initiative. On Sept. 28, Mayor Martin Chavez signed it into city law. The initiative creates a roadmap for transforming Albuquerque into one of the most progressive cities in the nation when it comes to energy consumption (see sidebar).

If that sounds ambitious, it is. Were Albuquerque lawmakers and agencies to actually implement the initiative, the city would be one of the nation's leaders in using and promoting renewable energy, surpassing notoriously progressive cities such as San Francisco and Portland. Such a policy would not only mean cleaner energy—and therefore cleaner water, air and lives for the city's residents—but a healthier economy as well. “There is enormous potential for local communities,” says Ben Luce, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy. “Economic and environmental sustainability can't be separated.”

A Bright Past and a Clean Future

New Mexico historically played an important role in the solar industry, says Griego. During the energy crisis of the '70s, the national labs devoted substantial time and money to developing solar technology. (Some might remember President Carter's call in 1979: Rather than encouraging people to shop, travel in airplanes and buy SUVs, the president in those days called for people to pull on a sweater and turn down the thermostat, and he declared that by 2000, Americans would get 20 percent of their energy from the sun.) “A lot of people don't know that New Mexico was leading the world in solar development,” says Griego. Just as the renewable industry was kicking into high-gear, Reagan landed in the White House, and federal spending to the labs shifted away from solar and back toward nuclear weapons.

Now that we're in the midst of another energy crisis—and a potentially more serious and longer term one—Griego hopes that Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories will prioritize renewable research once again. Such innovation, combined with state and city initiatives, would allow Albuquerque to become a national leader in the solar industry.

Today, there are about a dozen companies in Albuquerque alone that develop or manufacture everything from PV modules to hydrogen fuel cells, solar hot water systems and portable power systems. Most seem to have ended up here in the Duke City because they liked the weather, or simply because of dumb luck. But almost all seem to agree that incentives would help boost their industry—and make Albuquerque an even more attractive place to do business.

The state Renewable Portfolio Standard—which mandates 10 percent renewable energy by 2015—has already helped stimulate the market, says Rusty Schmit, with two-year-old Advent Solar. “And the market is growing,” says Bernard Stuart, general manager of Matrix Solar. “It's still a fledgling industry, but large corporations are finally waking up.” With today's energy realities, he says, “Right now, the solar market is booming internationally … [and] renewables will be a very important mix in the bag of available energy.” It wouldn't hurt for Albuquerque to get in on that action—and to work the supply-side of that demand.

According to Fred Mondragon, director of the city's Office of Economic Development, the city is already working with Albuquerque Economic Development, Inc., a private nonprofit that recruits new businesses to the city. The two are trying to help national companies find locations in Albuquerque. According to Mondragon, they're looking specifically for companies that are nonpolluting, that are compatible with existing clusters, such as aircraft manufacturing or biotechnology, or that could provide raw materials to existing companies and help them become more locally self-sustaining.

Together with local lawmakers and community leaders, the two groups vet new companies, seeking matches. Finding those matches can be tough, says Mondragon. “There have been a few cases in the past year where companies expressed interest in Albuquerque … but as we reviewed the company and sent people from the Environment Department to look at their sites, they came back and said, ’This isn't one we would want to recruit.'” He points out three factors in particular that make Albuquerque attractive to new businesses: access to technology from the national labs and the university, the “modest cost of doing business” and a workforce that has proven itself productive.

For Griego, the renewable industry could finally provide Albuquerque the opportunity to be more than a low-wage city that attracts businesses eager to exploit a cheap labor force. “We have to change our economy and make it a much more private sector-led, high-wage economy,” he says. And one way to do that is by wooing the renewable energy industry. Such companies provide jobs, not only to “engineers and eggheads,” he says, but they also create high-wage jobs in manufacturing. “We need to get out of the cycle of relying on low-wage call centers and get Albuquerque into a high-wage league,” he says.

After wrapping up his enthusiastic spiel on the initiative, a rather subdued Griego now pauses: “It's not just a political story,” he says of the initiative and the city's renewable future. “A lot of people care about this stuff and worked hard on it.”

One of those people is Wayne Evelo, chair of the city's Energy Conservation Council. The council, which consists of eight volunteer technical experts, was established in 2003 to help the City Council decide which efficiency projects were worthy of funds from the capital improvements for construction budget. Evelo, as well as other members of the council interviewed, wax rhapsodic about the initiative. They're enthusiastic, despite the fact that it's a hugely complicated plan that will require years of effort—on the part of city staff as well as volunteers—millions of dollars in funding and complex coordination among city departments. “We're moving along, fat, dumb and happy,” he laughs. “The city of Albuquerque, and New Mexico in general, have a vast abundance of renewable energy.” He points out that the state is No. 2 in the nation for available solar resources, No. 3 in geothermal and No. 12 in wind. “We still don't have all the incentives a lot of other states do,” he says. “But we have wonderful opportunities to embrace.”

“This is something we started focusing on in the mid-'70s,” says Bill Gross, last year's chair of the council. “After Reagan, everything just flipped, and we're just now starting to get back [to focusing on renewables.]” Even the pro-oil forces within the federal government can't stop renewable technology anymore, he believes. There are too many forces at work—including high prices and irritated consumers. And with states and local governments working on plans such as this one, change is definitely in the air. “Albuquerque is sort of taking the initiative nationally in doing this,” he says. “And that's where we ought to be—providing leadership.”

For now, the plan is in its infancy, and it will be up to the Mayor Martin Chavez' administration to guide many of its measures. “It's a very big initiative, and it's very aggressive,” says Richard Harding, deputy director of the city's Municipal Development Department. “At this stage, we're in the process of bringing city agencies together to develop a plan of action.”

Going Green

Independent of the Council, the mayor has his own plans for the city's renewable future. The mayor's office was unwilling to set up interviews with Mayor Chavez, but those close to the mayor, including Karen Leigh Cook, president of EECOM, Inc., a “sustainable economic marketing company,” say the mayor is leaps and bounds ahead of the Council. “The energy initiative ties into all the stuff the mayor was already doing,” she says. Not only that, says Cook, who in February prepared a Sustainable Resource Analysis for the city's Office of Economic Development, “He's looking at a larger, more visionary perspective.”

Although she says she's not criticizing the Council's efforts, she adds, “[The mayor's] approach is visionary and methodical—and he's making sure we don't just go after the low-hanging fruit.” She says something the mayor is particularly interested in is the relationship between economic sustainability and “green building.” And with a background in commercial real estate, Cook knows what it takes to create a palatable building and housing market in Albuquerque. She also knows that Albuquerque will become an even hotter market than it is today: “Have you seen any hurricanes blow through here? Any tornadoes? You can golf and ski all in one day,” she says, “and we are going to hit the radar big-time.” If city leaders want Albuquerque to continue growing as it has been, they will need to make sure it's sustainable growth. That means building homes that use less water and energy, emit 50-percent less greenhouse gases and create less construction waste.

Additionally, “building green” is really only economically sustainable if the city encourages companies that supply the raw materials to relocate to Albuquerque. Because New Mexico and Albuquerque have a very small building stock—compared with burgeoning cities such as Phoenix—most of the supplies come in from elsewhere. That's neither cheap, nor green, says Cook. The combination of development and manufacturing is a crucial one. For example, she says, “If you can get solar panel manufacturers to move here, you can create a whole market for them.” In the end, everyone wins. “We can do this, and we can do it in a way that green buildings will cost less—and they will always be worth more.”

In March, Chavez issued an executive order establishing that all city-funded buildings more than 5,000 square feet or using more than 50 KW of electricity be built according to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED-Silver standard. This national standard is based on credits; for a building to be certified LEED-Silver, it must meet certain requirements related to water and energy efficiency, indoor air quality, chemical use and recycling. Then, in September, Chavez announced a Sustainable Economic Development executive order that directs city agencies to work with private industry to recruit “green building supply industries.”

All of these plans—the City Council's initiatives and the mayor's announcements—are similar enough to merit confusion even among those involved with their planning and implementation. But the main difference between what's coming out of the City Council and the mayor's office is the way in which they can be implemented. Executive orders are policies that only apply during the mayor's own term, says City Councilor Martin Heinrich. Meanwhile, once an initiative is passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, it becomes law.

Hopefully, now that the election is over, politics can be set aside. “This initiative would make Albuquerque one of, if not the, most renewable-friendly cities in the world,” says Griego. “I'm just hoping that the city, and the mayor in particular, will embrace it.”

There's still a lot of work left to do. The initiative is ambitious, and still fairly ambiguous, says Odes Armijo-Caster, with Sacred Power, Inc., a native-owned solar company that distributes PV systems, solar hot water systems and wind turbines. “Now, everyone needs to sit down and decide what the city can and cannot do,” he says. There are funding issues, too, and he asks, “Are taxpayers willing to pay for the bonding issues?” He's hopeful that all the proactive people involved—ranging from the mayor to members of the Council—will rise to the challenge and implement the initiative. “We need to push them to progress with what they've said here,” he says. “It's one thing to say, it's another thing to do.”

And the time to get moving is now, says Ben Luce of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy. “This is not just another decade,” he says. “This is a turning point for life on this planet.” According to Luce, more than 40 percent of the U.S. economy is tied up in the energy industry, and that much of the economy doesn't need to be tied up in gas stations, pipelines, coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. “That's a huge amount of economic capital flowing. And we could redirect those flows to cleaner and local sources and jobs.” It won't be easy, but it can be done. “It's like trying to steer the Titanic from a rowboat,” he admits. “But there are more and more people, and more and more rowboats.”

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