Richard Mahler, Editor
In dramatic fashion, Grant County’s mining industry has shown its great vulnerability to market forces during the current global economic downturn. Spot copper prices skidded in December to less than $1.50 per pound, after peaking above $4 last summer. The per-share value of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, the mine operator that is the county’s largest single employer, has hovered below $30 after cresting at $127.24 last June. The company, which reported a $13.9-billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2008, has let go an estimated two-thirds of its local payroll. During January alone, some 180 Grant County residents filed unemployment claims, compared to 30-to-40 in a typical month.
While periodic layoffs are not unusual at area mines, the current round coincides with the inauguration of a new Democratic president and a series of government stimulus packages that promote a “green” economy that encourages respect for the environment while developing a stable workforce. In particular, Barack Obama’s administration seeks to capture the economic potential of diverse industries that harness renewable resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and conserve energy. “Now is the time to save billions by making two million homes and 75 percent of federal buildings more energy-efficient,” the president wrote Feb. 5 in a Washington Post commentary, “and to double our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy within three years.”
Development of solar power, in particular, is expected to get increased attention in our sunny, lightly populated corner of New Mexico. Education and technical assistance in the solar industry is one focus of the “green jobs track” offered this June 26-28 to those attending the Viva Verde Expo, co-sponsored by GRIP (see related article). The Expo’s Green Collar Committee is exploring how safe, environment-friendly jobs can bolster our region’s economy and mitigate the impact of slumps in the mining industry by providing work training and employment alternatives, especially for miners and young people. Committee members are mobilizing their efforts in association with the New Mexico Department of Labor, Grant County Health Council, and Small Business Development Center, among others. “Green” strategies include helping businesses launch, obtaining tax credits or grants for entrepreneurs, boosting innovative construction techniques, and developing economically viable uses for such recyclables as glass, cardboard, paper, and plastic.
Examples of the area’s long-term renewable energy potential include the signing last fall of five option agreements allowing two California solar power developers to access state trust lands in Luna and Hidalgo counties. New Mexico’s State Land Office has leased more than 20,000 acres for potential construction of facilities that could generate about 1,000 megawatts of power, or enough electricity to serve some 500,000 homes. An Arizona firm announced previously plans to build a 300-megawatt solar power generator and a photovoltaic cell factory near Deming. Other companies have been making inquiries locally into installation of additional solar power plants as well as small-scale wind and hydroelectric systems. Meanwhile, the state’s first commercial geothermal power plant is being built near Animas, with plans to employ 120 people during construction of a 10-megawatt unit capable of powering 8,000 homes.
Southwest New Mexico’s advantages in renewable energy development include easy access to high-capacity electricity transmission lines and state tax credits that provide financial incentives.