The best engine for economic development in Taos County

By Bill Knief

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This isn’t just one more article about yet another groundbreaking ceremony at UNM-Taos.

There were no gold painted shovels or hard hats in evidence the evening of August 20 when several hundred people gathered on the Klauer campus to inaugurate the beginning of the largest solar project in the state.

But it was a groundbreaking moment, nonetheless.

The story behind the event has been germinating in the rich cultural soil of northern New Mexico for centuries, where the daily rigors brought on by an unpredictable environment demanded creative, practical solutions to daily challenges. Back then, efficiency and sustainability were not just the latest buzz words; they could very well mean the difference between survival and disaster to the isolated communities of the Sangre de Cristos.

Let your acequias fail or your wood run out in the middle of winter, and you were in big trouble.

Today, faced with climate change, high fuel costs and the dependence on carbon-based power, this same natural resourcefulness is paying off in the form of cutting edge renewable power technology.

Taos is not really such an unlikely spot for this turn of events. Some twenty years ago Brad Hockmeyer, owner and founder of KTAO radio, saw that he had a problem. His tower stood atop Picuris Peak, and when generators broke down in the winter when the roads were impassable and repair impossible, his station went down with them. His solution was to install relatively unproven solar panels. And it worked.

Dr. Kate O’Neill, Executive Director of UNM-Taos, acknowledged Hockmeyer’s contribution at the ceremony by saying, “Thank you, Brad, for leading the way.”

She also recognized the contributions of a large number of individuals and institutions that collaborated in making the solar project possible.

Luis Reyes, president of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, was pivotal to the process. He recalled when, seven or eight years ago, renewable energy was a popular vision, but was too expensive. Nevertheless, “The membership said go with renewable, and diversify the portfolio.”

Reyes praised the Board of Trustees for supporting the will of its membership, deciding that solar should be a part of the “right mix” in their energy portfolio, and, most importantly, believing that in the future renewable energy would become the strongest engine for economic development in Taos County.

“The trustees felt that everyone should have access to renewable energy,” Reyes continued. “Solar energy is actually very democratic; it shines down on everyone. We felt that the school teacher and the policeman and the person with the million dollar home should all have equal access.”

Reyes noted that the entire project, stretched over four primary locations, will produce approximately 1.1 megawatts of power, making the UNM-Taos campus the largest solar array in New Mexico with 400 kilowatts produced by photovoltaic panels covering 2.5 acres east of the new Kids’ Campus. Northern New Mexico College will receive 350 kw, Kit Carson Electric Coop 150 kw, and KTAO Solar 100 kw.

Reyes recognized a long list of contributors including local officials Mayor Bobby Duran and Executive Director O’Neill, Senator Carlos Cisneros and Representatives Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales and Nick Salazar from the state legislature, along with Governor Richardson, Senator Bingaman and Representative Udall. From the Public Regulatory Commission he cited Chairman Jason Marks and Vice Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, along with representatives of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, who provided their considerable technical expertise.

Kurt Steinhaus, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, made a distinction between earlier solar energy programs and this one: “What’s different now is the emerging technology, strong leadership and the fact that communities are firmly behind it.”

Dr. Jose Griego, President of Northern New Mexico College, put it more forcefully: “We don’t need sheep, we need leaders….we need a workforce.” He then cited the American Solar Energy Association estimate that there will be millions of new jobs in renewables created in the next ten years.

American Capital Energy is the national company doing the design, engineering, and oversight of installation and maintenance of the facility. ACE’s President Tom Hunton was equally blunt. He felt that it was close to insanity to continue to subsidize polluting, non renewable energy industries while all but ignoring solar. “If you were to strip away all the subsidies from all our energy sources, I believe that you would find that solar energy would be the cheapest.”

Reyes concluded his remarks with this statement: “If it weren’t for a progressive board; if it weren’t for a progressive town; if it weren’t for a progressive leadership delegation from Taos County and surrounding communities; if it weren’t for Dr. Kate O’Neill and her vision, and Dr. Jose Griego, and former Mayor Peralta, and the Governor of the state of New Mexico…this project wouldn’t exist. But with all those stars aligned, I think we have the opportunity to lead the country. I think we can get other rural communities to embrace this model and we don’t have to wait for Washington to legislate energy policy.”

Upon completion of the project, UNM-Taos will be one of the first, if not the first, colleges in the nation whose campus is completely powered by solar energy.


If the possibility of being a part of the UNM-Taos experience appeals to you, there is still time to enroll for the fall semester. Space is still available in many classes, but time is running out. Classes began August 25, but you have till Friday August 29 to enroll and get started on a career path or the pursuit of knowledge just for the joy of learning. Call 737-6200 or go to our website at for information, then come to the enrollment office at 115 Civic Plaza Drive to be a part of your dynamic, forward thinking home town community college.

About The Bill Knief