A program intended to improve access to solar power for New Mexico consumers advanced the State Senate Floor Thursday after hours of debate in its second committee.
Senate Bill 82, known as the Community Solar Act was passed by the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on a 5-4 vote after passing the Senate Conservation Committee at the beginning of the month.
In both discussions, the bill proved divisive between environmentalists and advocates for renewable energy who argued it was a step toward broader use of “cleaner” and less polluting forms of power and major utilities and energy companies that contended it create regulatory uncertainty and could lead to higher power expenses.
If passed, SB 82 would establish a community solar program in New Mexico, allowing for smaller-scale solar facilities that power customers could tap into without installing solar arrays on their homes.
Presently, solar power is only available through large-scale utilities or personal home installations.
Supporters of community solar said it could allow low-income consumers or home renters to benefit from solar power and expand its use in New Mexico.
The move could also create progress toward the state’s carbon-reduction goals and increase in its renewable portfolio – both priorities outlined by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham upon taking office in 2019.
Similar legislation was previously defeated in the Legislature, but lawmakers did approve of creating a working group to better refine the proposal.
SB 84 sponsor Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics said during the Thursday hearing that representation in the working group include tribal organizations, utilities, solar advocates and interested citizens.
The group met numerous times in the last year to discuss the needs of stakeholders in drafting the current bill.
“Community solar makes solar power available to people who can’t access it for reasons such as renting, finances, apartment ownership, home type, etcetera,” she said. “It does not take away rooftop solar. It is for a different audience.”
Rick Gilliam, program director with national solar advocacy group Vote Solar said that despite the “collaborative” approach take in designing the bill, public utilities continued to oppose community solar.
He said their opposition was based on “misleading arguments” such as that community solar will increase costs for customers who do not opt into the program.
“This is simply not true,” Gilliam said. “We’ve known for years that distributed solar projects bring benefits to the system and many studies have shown their value to the system exceeds their costs.”
Mike D’Antonio with Xcel Energy said that although the major New Mexico utility company was part of the working group devising the bill, Xcel remained in opposition of the proposal.
D’Antonio said Xcel was in favor of community solar on a purely residential scale, but the SB 84 was also targeting a larger, commercial scale that could create uncertainty for utility companies.
Ashley Wagner with the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce said the bill would favor large-out-of-state solar companies and place burden on smaller, local providers.
She said the cost of community solar was unclear, thus creating uncertainty for the consumer.
“Adding unknown cost burdens to our most vulnerable communities is unfair,” she said. “Having nonsubscribers subsidizing subscribers is regressive.”
Kevin Cray, mountain west regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access called on lawmakers to support the bill as it could broaden the availability of solar power to more New Mexicans.
“Getting through the Conservation Committee and now (the Tax Business and Transportation Committee) is an important step in realizing the economic, energy equity, and grid benefits community solar can bring to all New Mexicans,” Cray said.
“We hope the Senate will listen to the groundswell of support from stakeholders in every corner of the state and finally pass community solar.”
Sen. Gay Kernan (R-42) said she was concerned about the state becoming overly reliant on solar power, which she said was not yet reliable enough to support New Mexico’s power grid.
“Someone said that we have 325 days of sunlight and there’s no question we do. But we also have 325 days of nighttime when the sun is not shinning,” she said. “And that’s why I think that’s why you need the backup of local utilities fill that void.”
Kernan pointed to the recent polar vortex that struck Texas and portions of New Mexico, leaving many residents without power when she said wind turbines, gas lines and solar panels froze.
This demonstrated, Kernan said, that New Mexico should not pick one form of energy over others.
“We all have to acknowledge the fact that it takes all types of energy all across the board,” she said. “We want to be careful that the utilities that have been there and been reliance, we don’t want to put a burden on them.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.