BELEN — The Belen City Council will be considering a special use solar overlay zone on 108 acres of what is now zoned residential on the city’s west mesa.

Steven Tomita, the city’s planning and economic development manager for Belen, said the property is directly south of the Jardin de Belen subdivision, but the city currently doesn’t have a zoning designation for large solar facilities.

“We (the city) can approve this type of project with a SU-1 overlay,” said Tomita at the June 6 council meeting. “This allows for solar and will keep the underlying zoning.”

Chamica Solar, LLC, who requested the overlay zone, is proposing to construct and operate a solar power generation facility on the property.

Tomita explained to the council Chamica Solar will apply to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to be considered for the state’s community solar program, which will allow electric utility customers to purchase shares in a renewable energy facility to offset their monthly energy consumption, often with a credit on their monthly utility bills.

The Community Solar Act, or SB84, was signed into law in April 2021, by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Tomita said Chamica Solar chose the site because “it’s remote and won’t affect anything around it.” He also told the councilors and mayor all the energy generated from the solar facility will be available to Belen residents and business owners, with 30 percent dedicated to serve low-income residents.

Lori Moya, with Chamica Solar, LLC, said the small scale community solar project will be 5 mega-watts, which will be added to existing local electrical distribution grids to power homes, businesses and other electric needs.

“The program allows for all communities, households, businesses that don’t have access to solar,” Moya said. “(The facility) will be operated remotely, and there will be no permanent employees on site. There will be an 8-foot security, chain-linked fence, so access will be controlled.”

Moya also said the construction cost will be about $9 million, and will use no water, other than minimal use to control dust during construction.

“There are several large and small electric facilities in the area,” Moya said. “We’ll connect into the existing electrical distribution lines.”

Moya said while they will use 108 acres, the solar panels will be on a total of 72 of those acres. She said the facility will be able to serve between 800-1,000 customers.

“The solar panels will be in rows, and will have a tracking solar design,” Moya told the council.

The panels will rotate during the sunlight hours, and will lay flat during the night or when it’s very cloudy.

“I’m hoping the PRC decides what communities gets (approval),” Moya said. “It would be a good thing for Belen and Valencia County as well.”

Because the council meeting’s agenda wasn’t specific in that it was for a special use solar overlay zone request, and only listed the item as a “solar project,” the council recessed the public hearing and postponed consideration until the meeting on Monday, June 20.

The Public Regulation Commission approved a new rule on March 31, which includes a statewide capacity of 200 MW of community solar power — about 40 projects statewide — and establishes selection policies for utility companies issuing opportunities for community solar development in the state.

Being a part of the community solar project will be a competitive process. According to the PRC’s implementation near-term timeline, the community solar program administrator will issue a request for proposals in July, with responses anticipated to be evaluated and ranked for selection before Oct. 1.

There has been a flurry of activity in parts of the unincorporated areas of Valencia County as companies get their zoning set up in anticipation of the July RFP. So far, the county commission has approved four solar field overlay zones for developers wanting to offer community solar.

At its June 28 meeting, the Valencia County Planning and Zoning Commission will hear seven applications for solar field overlay zones, ranging from areas north of the BNSF railroad crossing on N.M. 6, west of the village of Los Lunas, to acreage on Belen’s west mesa. The meeting begins at 3 p.m. and is held at the county administration building, 444 Luna Ave., Los Lunas.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.