New Mexico community solar proposal clears first hurdle

Source: By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press • Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2021

A proposal that would allow community solar programs to be established in New Mexico cleared its first legislative hurdle yesterday despite questions from some lawmakers about costs and concerns raised by investor-owned utilities.

The bill cleared the Senate Conservation Committee on a party-line vote, with Democrats saying it would complement state mandates for generating more electricity from renewable resources by expanding access to solar energy for businesses and residents who can’t install their own solar panels for any number of reasons.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen told the committee during a virtual meeting that work to establish a process for developing community solar projects around the state has been ongoing for years and that the legislation would encourage energy development in more locations around the state, including on tribal lands.

“It is time to democratize energy production in New Mexico. It’s time to move away from outdated models and monopoly power,” Hansen said.

Community solar projects open the door for households and businesses that don’t have access to solar because they rent, don’t have the rooftop space or can’t afford the upfront costs of a photovoltaic system. Instead, developers build small, local solar facilities from which customers can subscribe and receive credit on their electricity bills for the power produced from their portion of the solar array.

Supporters say aside from adding more renewable energy to the grid, community solar projects can offset electricity costs for subscribers, including low-income residents.

However, both Democrat and Republican lawmakers had questions about whether costs could be passed along to other utility customers who aren’t subscribers.

Ashley Wagner with the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry said the business advocacy group was among those to support the state’s landmark Energy Transition Act in 2019, saying it has helped to attract new businesses and more economic development to the state. But she said the community solar bill as drafted could negatively affect businesses that are trying to recover amid the pandemic.

“The bill harms struggling communities and families because the true cost of community solar for the average family or business has not been established,” she told lawmakers. “How can any one of us push policy through without knowing the true cost and financial toll it will have on our most vulnerable communities?”

Advocates testified that having more solar arrays within New Mexico communities would reduce transmission losses and boost efficiency of the grid.

“The power is produced where it’s being used. The mechanics of that are major benefits,” said Pilar Thomas, an Arizona-based attorney who works on energy policy issues and testified in support of the bill.