Beth Bellof likes the look of the solar array on her Santa Fe property.
Her admiration goes beyond aesthetics.
“I love what a solar array looks like,” said Bellof, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Sustainable Communities NM. “I love what it represents: capturing free solar energy — renewable, free solar energy.”
Soon, New Mexico could see a lot more solar arrays — and not just private residential ones nestled in a backyard or installed on a roof.
Legislation signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week has created an opportunity for community groups to come together and buy into a communal solar power system designed to help them save on energy costs.
The state’s new Community Solar Act will allow solar developers to work with residential clients, small businesses, nonprofits, churches and schools to create central arrays they may all tap into.
The legislation is set up to ensure least 30 percent of community solar clients are low-income New Mexicans.
Solar power advocates say it’s more than just a sunny deal. It’s the wave of the future, one that will help the state achieve the goals in its Energy Transition Act, which aims to move the state’s electric utilities to all renewable resources by 2045.
And it’s an equitable way of giving low-income residents, who can’t afford private solar arrays, and renters, who cannot install solar without a landlord’s permission, a chance to take part, they say.
“It offers every person the opportunity to participate in renewable energy when they thought it was just going to go on around them,” said state Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, one of the sponsors of the Community Solar Act.
The program will launch on a three-year trial basis, she said, to give the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission — tasked with laying out the guidelines by April 2022 — time to review the plan to see how it is working and whether, among other factors, it is cost- and energy-efficient.
Stefanics and others involved with the legislation said the program should save solar customers at least 10 percent of their monthly electricity costs, although the savings might come over time.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, based in Taos, installed a community solar project for Picuris Pueblo several years ago.
Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes said, “It may be fair to say it keeps rates flat instead of going up as inflation goes up — as the cost of everything else goes up. You will still pay the same rates in 10 years that you pay today. So, theoretically, you do save money.”
Opponents, including representatives of utility companies, say those savings could be borne by utility customers who are not part of the solar community deal.
Reyes said he has not found that to be true.
In any event, he said, “That should not be a reason to not have community solar.”
A community solar project depends on a developer finding and subscribing enough customers to make an investment worthwhile. Having an anchor subscriber — a school, small business or nonprofit — can make a difference in making such a project viable, Stefanics said.
She said she knows a lot of people along N.M. 14, south of Santa Fe, who have expressed interest in taking part in a group solar effort.
If an entity like Turquoise Trail Charter School wanted to serve as the main tenant, it would work with an interested solar developer to initiate the project, she said. The developer would be charged with finding other subscribers in the area to sign on.
The new law requires at least 10 subscribers to be involved in a project, but Stefanics said she estimates it would take at least 100 to make a project worthwhile.
Rick Whisman, a regional vice president of business development for community solar firm Nexamp — which is interested in doing business in New Mexico — said his company is already dealing with landowners in the state to gauge interest in a community project.
Once a deal were set up, Whisman said, his firm would then begin negotiations with the utility company in the region — to connect to their energy transmission lines for metering — and begin looking for subscribers. He said his company could be ready to mount a project about nine months after the Public Regulation Commission finalizes rules — around the end of 2022.
Nexamp operates in 15 states, and Whisman said more community solar projects are “inevitable.”
“It’s established itself as being very flexible,” he said. “Once the system is set up, there are zero fuel costs. It all comes from the sun. That makes it a very attractive economic proposition.”
According to the New Mexico legislation, community solar projects must be located within the service range of an existing utility company, such as the Public Service Company of New Mexico, and be connected to the utility’s electric distribution system. While a project can be located near other energy resources, it cannot geographically overlap another community solar project.
Such projects are growing around the U.S., according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, which provided advice and guidance to people pushing for the legislation in New Mexico.
According to the agency’s data, 39 states and Washington, D.C., have some kind of community solar projects in place. Nearly 75 percent of them are in four main markets: Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York.
Jenny Heeter, senior energy analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said the agency is “definitely seeing growth in the market.”
One driver of the market beyond cost savings, she said, is “people want to support a solar project in their community, something they can see. It’s not subscribing to another utility project that may provide renewable energy from a project located a couple of states away.
“There’s this distinction of supporting something local that has an associated ‘feel-good’ and ‘I can see it and know what it is’ component,” Heeter added.
She said the lab’s study shows about 80 percent of community solar projects nationwide save customers some money.
The lab has not yet studied the ratio of energy savings.
Many of the projects require a carve-out of services for low- to moderate-income households, Heeter said.
That’s vital with projects like these, said Mayane Barudin of Santa Domingo Pueblo, who serves as the regional director and tribal liaison with Vote Solar, a clean energy advocacy group. She and other representatives of tribes in the state participated in discussions leading to the Community Solar Act.
“Tribes typically have higher rates of impoverishment than other communities,” Barudin said. “For many tribal members living on fixed income, this will be huge. Just having any kind of savings on energy is substantial.”
Thinking of her grandparents, Barudin said she likes the idea that maybe one day the extra savings will be used to “do something special with the money, maybe treat their grandkids. That means a lot.”
Such projects, she said, bring a community together in ways that are not always discernible on the surface.
“This is a way for people to actually come together in a group project where everyone can feel good about what they are doing for their community and take on the challenge of a just energy transition,” she said. “I really believe that is everybody’s responsibility.”