Mesa Del Sol – on the path to perfect power


By Jonathan Spencer Jones

Mesa del Sol is an ambitious new long term development taking place on Albuquerque’s southern mesa, about 10 miles south of the city centre, that is grounded on the principles of sustainability.

Slated as the largest urban master planned development in the United States, and the last significant development in central Albuquerque, the 20 square miles of land – currently a largely open, sparsely vegetated expanse of sand and rock – is set for some 38,000 new homes and 18 million square feet of office and industrial space, as well as schools, shops, restaurants, parks and open spaces, and the other amenities that comprise such a development.

So far the first commercial tenants have undertaken developments on-site – not surprisingly, perhaps, the very first was a solar photovoltaic developer and manufacturer, Advent Solar – and the first residential properties are scheduled to become available in 2010.

“We’ve got a clean slate property here,” says Mike Daly, president of Mesa del Sol and a long time proponent of the conservation of energy, water and other natural resources in property development.


Mesa del Sol landscape –
site of the first

“We did energy efficiency in a development about a third of this size in Denver and when we started at Mesa del Sol, we wanted to see what we could do next,” Daly says, commenting that early on the company started working with the local gas and electric utility, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), and the nearby Sandia National Laboratories to investigate energy efficiency options for the development.

At the same time Mesa del Sol, which is under development by Forest City Covington, also made contact with the Galvin Electricity Initiative – an initiative launched by former Motorola chief Robert W. Galvin to develop a “perfect power” system – to evaluate the proposed development against the requirements of such a system.

A perfect power system as envisioned by Galvin is one in which consumers can choose – and receive – the system and services that are perfect for them, rather than having it imposed on them by a single supplier. Galvin’s model is based on smart microgrids with distributed generation and storage and cogeneration, which are connected to and augment the bulk power grid. Key elements include digital communications and control, smart meters and smart appliances, and consumer control. As consumer demand grows and the regulated utility system evolves, perfect power is expected to become increasingly available through the utility grid, with the individual microgrids designed to augment the grid to meet particular needs.

The review team discovered that PNM incorporates already most of the perfect power elements into its electricity supply system design. These include redundant transmission supply, redundant area substations, redundant local substation supply, and redundant substation feeds. In addition, the substation feeders are buried to improve reliability and aesthetics. Accordingly, overall the baseline PNM design provides a high level of reliability, with the system averaging 0.519 interruptions per customer per year, versus an industry average of 1.1 outages per customer per year. The Mesa del Sol transmission and distribution design should be even more reliable with fewer than 0.5 outages per customer per year.


The Aperture Centre, anchor
building of the first town centre,
under construction

The team identified various system improvements for the development. Among these are the applications of advanced metering, energy efficiency, and demand response to reduce the amount of distribution hardware required to serve the development, and automation and communication at the substation and transmission level to allow for isolation of faults to minimise power interruptions. The application of solar energy, distributed energy and energy storage at the consumer level to provide for permanent demand reduction was also recommended, as was the development of technology-ready building designs such as solar-ready homes and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). The result of these recommendations was a reduction in the development peak demand by an estimated 30 to 60 MW. This in turn would reduce PNM’s electric system infrastructure requirements. Moreover the distribution system savings could offset the costs associated with placing a portion of the transmission system underground, installing advanced switches, and the application of demand response features. And while the proposed energy efficiency and solar-ready home feature costs would be reflected in the building costs, these costs would be recouped by the residence via monthly energy savings.

“As with any aspect of the development we have to consider the costs,” says Daly. “If the basic system costs $180 million and the perfect power system costs $280 million, we have to ask if the extra costs can be justified and whether it is worth doing.”

With this in mind Mesa del Sol recently entered into an agreement with Sandia to partner on several technical projects supporting the research and demonstration of energy technologies in the real life environment of the development. Among these are the smart grid and microgrid, energy monitoring and storage, concentrating solar technologies as well as energy control and security.

A pilot project is also to be launched over the next two years in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the first 300 residential houses at Mesa del Sol, with smart metering, smart appliances and photovoltaic power generation.


Rendering of the first

“We want to look at various tariffs such as time-of-day and peak pricing as well as no price signal and evaluate what policies will encourage consumers to change their behaviour,” says Daly, adding that if he had his way he would like to see smart metering in all the buildings in Mesa del Sol.

And looking further ahead Daly envisages the development of a 125 MW solar trough facility, which could provide power not only to Mesa del Sol but also the city of Albuquerque.

However, ultimately PNM, as the responsible utility, must get cost recovery on AMI and other technologies it might install, and so the rollout decisions will be theirs. For example, the cost of solar power in Mesa del Sol is relatively expensive – and thus the payback is longer – compared with states such as California, where power prices in general are higher.

There are also regulatory constraints that need to be addressed to enable the plans to proceed. For example it is understood that currently it is not possible to recover microgrid implementation costs through electricity tariffs, and the state has yet to offer consumers time-of-use pricing.

Mesa del Sol – future home to about 100,000 people and a working environment for about 60,000 – is a long term development over the next 30 to 50 years – beyond the lifetimes of many of those involved in it today. In the words of Galvin and Kurt Yeager in their recent book, “Perfect Power”, the development is a “bright beacon” for perfect power.

“Mesa del Sol will provide a near perfect opportunity to apply uncompromised principles of quality to smart microgrids as the basis for achieving a sustainable energy future. To build this ambitious new planned city, the developer, the utility, the city, and the state are united in convincing the New Mexico regulators to enable a perfect power mecca serving the best interests of every citizen in the state.”