Questa solar project off and running

On an early April morning history was made in the small Northern New Mexico Village of Questa when the array of 173 concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) solar panels was officially turned on.

Michael Casaus, The Wilderness Society New Mexico Director noted a certain beauty in this installation, gleaming silvery-blue alongside of winding Highway 522, with the green carpeted mountains of Carson National Forest just across the road.

The gleam of the array signaled a new era for Questa. Located 20 miles north of the well-known arts community of Taos, for the past 60 years Questa had been dependent on Molycorp Mining Company for jobs and economic stability. Tailings from the molybdendum mine were deposited near town for decades with no reclamation process except the spread of desert shrubs and grasses finding rootholds in the rubble. When Molycorp was acquired by Chevron Mining Incorporated (CMI), this tailings area was chosen as a prime location for solar energy development, benefitting from the tremendous resource of an average of 300 days a year of sunlight.

A large white tent was set up near the solar array, a fact that was appreciated by the hundred or so attendees on the cold morning. Local townspeople and middle school classes mingled with elected officials, EPA representatives and corporate executives, all eyes roaming to the single tent wall made of transparent plastic. Outside stood the solar trackers, quivering slightly in the strong wind. 173 of them were mounted on 21 foot tall pedestals, and although they measured 18 feet wide, they fit easily on their 7-acre footprint. Another reason the site was chosen was because of the easy access to existing transmission lines to the local rural electricity co-operative, Kit Carson Electric.

It was an unusual sight, The Wilderness Society sharing the inaugural ceremony podium with Chevron, Casaus’s native New Mexican turquoise bolero tie a striking contrast to the homogenous dress of the other speakers. It’s true! The Wilderness Society has worked with Questa in supporting Chevron’s responsible use of this degraded land for renewable energy development, providing local jobs as well as carbon-free energy production. Casaus said “Chevron’s project is a great example of how lands across America that have already been disturbed can be turned from a liability into an asset to local communities.”

Among the other speakers were the Director of the Energy, Conservation and Management Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Resources Department[Fernando Martinez]; the President of Chevron Technology Ventures[Des King], the President of Chevron Mining[Mark Premo]; the CEO of Soitec, which developed the CPV module, and the Mayor of Questa [Ester Garcia]. All addressed aspects of the planning, construction and use of this clean energy that made the project unique, including when the array was pre-officially used earlier in the year during frigid weather to help with a local heating crisis.

This project was a collaboration of CMI and Chevron Technology Ventures, designed as a model of the new CPV solar cell technology, whose 1MW output makes it presently one of the largest of its kind in the world.

Although the materials are expensive, these high efficiency cells produce twice as much energy as traditional flat screen solar panels, constantly repositioning themselves as they track the course of the sun. The minute re-adjustments of position are made for maximum lensing of the light and give each tracker an almost animate character. In fact, the local contractors even named some of them according to their ‘personalities’.

Additional monitoring is being done at the site, to test three different levels of soil cover for possible contamination of groundwater. The Molycorp mine was designated as a federal Superfund site, with the tailings debris area slated for cleanup. A five-year study is being undertaken by Chevron and the State of New Mexico to test the differing permeability of one, two and three feet of soil cover under the solar installation, to determine sufficient protection of the water.

At the end of the final comments, all of the speakers were invited to join in a drum-roll moment, pushing a large white button together with the eager hands of some of the school children. The solar array roared into life—or rather, quite elegantly, shifted their modules in search of the sun.

Check out this video about the project. It was released by Chevron.