Whether this is a harbinger of things to come, another milestone or just another blip on the radar, only time will tell. But last year we embarked on a series of flights revolving around the debate over New Mexico's energy future.
Wind Turbines, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2009.
On a brilliant day in the Fall we teamed up with the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, based in Missoula, Montana, to be part of a week-long learning expedition fellowship for 25 journalists from around the country.
We began our journey in "pollution center" with flights over the Farmington area, home to two of the highest polluting coal plants in the western United States. The 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station and the 2,040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant, both on Navajo Indian territory, burn over ten million tons of coal per year, discharging into the air approximately 42,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 12,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 1,300 tons of particulate matter.
The emissions are not only a health hazard, but the ensuing brown haze has a huge visibility impact on Class 1 national parks within 300 kilometers of the Four Corners, including Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches National Park.
After meetings with local conservationists and Navajo spokespeople, we flew over these sites, including a third proposed 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant, the controversial Desert Rock Energy Project. Conservationists, the state of New Mexico and some Navajos have voiced concerns about the project, saying Desert Rock would add more pollution to a river system already polluted beyond thresholds for selenium and mercury and would even more seriously compromise air quality, human health and the environment.
The Navajo nation are divided on the issue. They want to lift themselves out of an almost 60% poverty rate and some tribal leaders argue the quickest way to achieve that is with more fossil-fuel development. But current health care costs born by the Navajo for cardiovascular diseases, strokes and asthma - all aggravated by exposure to pollutants from power plants or dust from coal mining - are estimated at approximately $200 million per year.
The next day the focus shifted to wind power as we traveled south to the town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, on the renowned Route 66 and flew over the Aragonne Mesa Wind Farm at the eastern end of the state. We landed at a small airstrip and were treated to the small-town America that still exists in these rural areas - a diner in particular with 1950's automobiles that fortunately or unfortunately I remember well.
Our flights over the state's biggest wind project, the New Mexico Wind Energy Center showed some of the most remarkable and effective wind farms in the country.
The potential for electricity generation from wind is enormous in New Mexico, especially on the eastern plains, with annual wind energy potential estimated to be 435 billion kWh.
On our return trip we flew over one of the nation's largest solar arrays. The Alamosa Photovoltaic Solar Plant sits on 80 acres in the San Luis valley in south central Colorado, regarded as the best solar spot in the state with nearly 340 days of sunshine a year. This type of solar technology is being replicated across the country to power homes, big box stores, universities and hospitals.
Not since I flew to reintroduce wolves back in my favorite area of Yellowstone have I been as excited about these issues. There are definitely potential challenges with renewable energy but it is a far cry from our business as usual approach to our energy needs.
As I entered the Roaring Fork Valley, the sun was beginning to set and knowing that some of that energy will begin to be harnessed on a larger scale gave me a real sense of satisfaction.