A bill that would allow electricity customers in New Mexico to tap into local solar power facilities passed on the New Mexico Senate Floor Thursday on a 27-14 across party lines.
Senate Bill 84, known as the Community Solar Act would establish a program in New Mexico intended to allow low-income and renting customers to opt into solar generation from arrays known as “solar gardens” – smaller than utility scale but larger than residential panels.
The program would require up to 10 subscribers before a facility could be built and limit generation to 5 megawatts per year and 100 MW for the entire program.
A single megawatt could power about 250 New Mexico homes, per data from the Solar Energy Industry Association.
Facilities would require an “anchor tenant” small business, with 30 percent of subscribers defined as “low income.”
If passed, the bill would require the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to set the rules for operation of the program and rates by April 2022 and complete an evaluation of the program after three years.
The bill was sent to the New Mexico House of Representatives for further committee hearings and a final vote that could send it to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to be signed into law.
Supporters of community solar in New Mexico argued it would broaden the availability of renewable energy, as the state works to expand such sources and shift away from its reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas for electricity.
Opponents contended solar power was not yet reliant enough for the state to depend on at a large scale and that a community solar program could raise the energy rates for customers who don’t opt into the program.
Similar legislation was tabled in a past legislative session, but a memorial was passed to establish a community solar working group that convened in the last year to refine the proposed program and draft SB 84.
During Thursday’s hearing on the Senate Floor, sponsor Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics (D-39) said many customers were excluded from rooftop solar system due to the cost of installation and the space required for the panels.
“Many people are left out of rooftop solar because of their home. They might be renting, they might not have enough space,” she said. “They might not be able to afford it. But everyone might want to have the chance at renewable energy and reducing their electric energy bills.”
Sen. Gay Kernan (R-42) said she worried about maintaining a reliable power supply if the community solar program was established, pointing to the recent electrical grid failure in neighboring Texas caused by widespread winter storms.
“I worry a little bit. We know what happened in Texas just recently and we look across there and realized they didn’t plan well. You’ve got to keep a constant source of power,” she said.
“I worry about how the utility, how they work together with the subscribers of the garden to make sure that they are planning appropriately so that we don’t have a disaster like what happened in Texas.”
Kernan argued solar power can be unreliable during weather events when sunlight is limited, which she said occurred during the polar vortex in her district in southeast New Mexico which led to widespread blackouts.
“I think in the event that occurred in my area, there was no sun shining,” she said. “They may not have contributed to the problem, but they didn’t contribute to the solution either.”
While solar and other renewable energy installations were recently built on the eastern side of the state, creating construction jobs, Kernan said she didn’t see how the installations would continue to support the local economies once completed.
She said Xcel Energy, a major utility provider in the region, already increased renewable energy by 50 percent to the New Mexico grid – 10 years ahead of the benchmarks set in New Mexico Energy Transition Act.
“Our area has done a very substantial job in getting new (solar) farms online. I know it’s all across the eastern side of the state and those things are going up everywhere,” she said. “It’s created some construction jobs, but once that construction is completed, I don’t understand how this really creates ongoing jobs.”
Sen. Sedillo Lopez (D-16) said efforts to develop community solar in New Mexico were ongoing “for years” and could encourage local communities to collaborate and contribute to the power grid, but worried SB 84 had become overly complicated through numerous committee amendments as it moved through the Senate.
She said she was concerned about giving the PRC authority over the program and requiring an anchor tenant for solar gardens as clauses added to the bill that could limit the options of subscribers.
“I support the bill and I definitely admire the leadership of the sponsors in sticking with this and moving us toward clean energy,” she said. “I just feel that the bill has gotten a little complicated and weakened in some ways.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.