Triple Bottom Line Foundation: Aztec Solar Farm Bridge Funding

Overview

To help stabilize energy costs and decarbonize energy usage in the City of Aztec, New Mexico, Triple Bottom Line Foundation (TBL Fund) worked with its affiliate, International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology (ICAST), to conduct predictive modeling that evaluated the financial feasibility of a utility-scale solar PV and battery storage projects for the municipal utility. By bridging the financing to fund the project until Investment Tax Credits are available, the City was able to construct a 2MW Solar PV farm and 4MW battery storage facilities to generate over 5 GWh of renewable energy annually, resulting in estimated cost savings of nearly $5 million for the City over 25 years and stabilized energy costs for residents.

Process

The municipal utility for the City of Aztec, New Mexico reached out to ICAST, a nonprofit solar developer, who called on its affiliate, TBL Fund, to help evaluate, develop, construct, and finance a Solar PV farm with energy storage. The city had approval to build the farm on federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and with TBL Fund’s help, the City applied for the bonus Investment Tax Credits (ITC) through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
The TBL Fund began by completing a financial feasibility study. The study revealed that the project would provide nearly $5 million worth of savings over a 25-year period compared to the city's initial investment of $2 million. The project's financial benefits resulted in its unanimous approval by the city council.

Upon approval, ICAST helped the city complete the required studies and pre-development work for the project, including a system impact study on the grid, geotechnical analysis, engineering, system design, and bid documents for contractors. TBL Fund provided the bridge funds for these activities.

Due to the solar farm being installed on federal land, the bridge financing also helped complete a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Environmental Assessment (EA). These assessments can take 18-24 months, which can significantly delay projects and highlight the importance of gap financing to improve project feasibility.

While waiting for approval of the environmental assessments, TBL Fund also helped the City of Aztec to field and evaluate bids for solar components and electrical equipment via ICAST. These important pieces of equipment can have an 18-24-month lead time, which is why the city pushed to have an equipment provider ready once the project was approved. The city was able to find an Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) bidder who could guarantee deliveries within six months and met domestic content requirements of the Build America, Buy America (BABA) Act to earn an additional 10% bonus on ITC funding.

The bridge funding provided will cover project costs until grant funds, Investment Tax Credit (ITC) funds, and local government funds are able to repay the TBL funds.

With all assessments completed and all the necessary consultants and contractors selected, construction on the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

Once the plant is operational, the electricity generated will be provided to residents at a contracted rate via a Purchase-Power Agreement (PPA). This will provide stability to energy costs for residents while ensuring demand for the project’s generated power.

Financing

ICAST’s relationships with Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) bidders ensure deliveries within six months, and the project meets domestic content requirements of the Build America, Buy America (BABA) Act.  This will allow the project to earn an additional 10% bonus ITC on top of the 30% baseline, the 10% energy community bonus for the project site (due to the recent closing of a local coal-powered energy plant in the area), plus a potential 10% bonus ITC for being classified as a low-income community (this is a competitive bonus ITC allocation that the IRS has not yet allocated), bringing the total ITC to potentially as much as 60%, which the City will garner through Direct Pay from the IRS as a cash payment upon submitting its tax returns in 2025.

Additionally, the project is expected to cover ~20% of the project costs with grant funding (from various state and federal sources), which is disbursed after project completion.  The remaining investment will come from the City (~20%).  TBL Fund provides Bridge financing until permanent financing is in place. 

Measuring Success

City utility ownership of the project, coupled with access to available incentives, allows for the capture of all possible value streams that allow the city to pass the lower costs onto their residents. Additionally, the recent closing of a power plant in the area allowed the city to lease federal land at a very low cost for the renewable energy project, helped the project economics, and allowed for solar energy costs below current supplier pricing. 

Outcomes

The solar Aztec, NM farm is projected to produce 5.375 GWh of electricity in its energy first year, which is the equivalent of powering over 700 homes electricity usage for an entire year.
The solar PV farm and battery storage system will also provide substantial economic benefits to the City of Aztec, NM and its residents. The energy provided by the solar farm will shave peak energy prices and stabilize wholesale energy prices, while the power purchase agreement (PPA) associated with the project will lock in lower energy prices for the utility. The Aztec Solar Farm is anticipated to save the city nearly $5 million over the course of its useful life. 

ICAST is also providing apprenticeship opportunities for the local community through their Workforce Training Program, which will provide prevailing wage jobs. 

Partnerships

ICAST (International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology) - ICAST is a national 501c3 nonprofit with a mission to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to underserved communities in a manner that builds local capacity. ICAST acted as the project developer and managed the design, procurement, construction, and commissioning of the Project. 

Western Area Power Authority (WAPA)- is a four-power marketing administration within the U.S. Department of Energy whose role is to market and transmit wholesale electricity from multi-use water projects. WAPA service area encompasses a 15-state region of the central and western U.S., including more than 17,000 circuit miles of transmission system carrying electricity from 57 hydropower plants operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the International Boundary and Water Commission. Together, these plants have an installed capacity of 10,504 megawatts. WAPA sells power to preferred customers such as federal and state agencies, cities and towns, rural electric cooperatives, public utility districts, irrigation districts, and Native American tribes.