Jason Marks is going out swinging. He’ll spend his last month on the Public Regulation Commission fighting to defend renewable energy, especially solar power. It’s a battle he says he wasn’t expecting to wage.
The state requires utilities to ramp up their use of renewable energy over time. By 2020, companies like PNM will have to get 20 percent of their overall power from renewables. And beyond that, a Public Regulation Commission rule from 2007 specifies what kinds of clean power must be used: at least 20 percent solar, 20 percent wind and 10 percent from other sources like geothermal or biomass.
Marks says two conservative commissioners, Pat Lyons and Ben Hall, proposed to cut those targets in half. Last month, Attorney General Gary King and a coalition called the New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers—which includes the city of Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico, Honeywell and Intel—filed formal requests asking the PRC to ax the diversity requirements altogether. King and the coalition say New Mexicans can’t afford the hike in utility bills that the mandates would spawn, especially if companies are forced to use costly solar energy.
But Marks says it's already been decided that New Mexico isn't only looking at the cheapest, short-term solutions. "We’re going to invest in a diverse portfolio to invest in clean energy options in the future.”
Solar energy is key to moving the state forward, says Marks. With up to 340 days of sunshine every year, it’s our most plentiful natural resource. Solar rays are strongest during hot summer months when demand for electricity is at its peak. There are also better opportunities for storing solar power compared with wind. Finally, Marks says, there’s potential for New Mexico to position itself as a prime exporter of solar energy in the years ahead. “There are enough commercially developable areas in New Mexico for solar to produce more electricity than the entire U.S. consumes,” he says.
Marks was on the PRC five years ago when renewable energy requirements were in their infancy. But Marks says he and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), who was also on the commission at the time, spearheaded diversity rules because utility companies kept finding excuses not to invest in a broad range of options—especially solar. In 2006, he says, the entire state generated enough solar power to serve only 40 or 50 households.
Today, says Marks, as a result of the diversity requirements, solar energy feeds more than 170 megawatts into state electric grids—enough to power about 65,000 homes.
He says if targets are scaled back or repealed, companies won’t have incentive to develop more solar power sources. Plus, there's another roadblock: The PRC is reconsidering rules that cap what utilities are required to pay for renewable energy development. The industry coalition and attorney general are lobbying to keep the cap low. Marks says these changes could force New Mexico's solar industry to come to a grinding halt.
Regina Wheeler agrees. She’s CEO of Positive Energy Solar, a panel installation company founded in 1997 that's expanded statewide. “We’ve proven that this is a cost-competitive energy solution for our state, as well as a generator for economic development, revenue and jobs,” she says.
It’s “unfathomable” that an organization like the coalition with six constituents could derail what she says has been a successful negotiation between the PRC and utilities.
According to spokesperson Susan Sponar, PNM has decided not to oppose the solar diversity targets, but establishing the cap on what utilities pay for renewables is a priority. The limit on rate hikes is set to rise next year from 2 percent to 2.5 percent, and Sponar says PNM is interested in keeping it low to protect consumers. PNM supports renewable energy, she says, “and at the same time we think it’s important to consider the cost of future plans, since that’s such a concern to our customers.”
Peter Gould, general counsel for the New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers, says the association simply wants the PRC to put consumer needs above expansion of renewable energy. The PRC has gone too far encouraging green industries that need a leg up at the expense of ratepayers, he argues. He also says the PRC's required diversity percentages aren't based on solid evidence.
“The reason it’s all come to a head now is that as the renewable portfolio standard goes up to 15 percent in 2015, we’re going to see an incredible ramping up of the cost of complying with that statute,” Gould says.
The brief submitted to the PRC by Attorney General King makes similar arguments: “New Mexico’s aggressiveness in pushing relatively high diversity requirements for costly solar is surprising considering the fact that New Mexico is a relatively poor state,” it reads.
Marks says the idea that cost trumps all other considerations isn't in line with the state Renewable Energy Act, which requires the PRC to balance the development of diverse renewable energy against affordability. He also says the PRC's target percentages were set in 2007 after hearing extensive expert testimony, and by carefully weighing the pros and cons of each energy source.
There's no disagreement that coal-burning plants and natural gas still cost less in terms of utility bills. “But based on my interaction with constituents,” says Marks, “I believe people are willing to pay 3 percent more for clean energy.”
Marks says he fears the two parties pushing for solar target rollback have timed their actions to run out the clock on the current PRC, postponing a final decision until there's less opposition on the commission.
But in the meantime, he adds, “I’m still a commissioner, and I’ll do what I can to get this current commission to vote—either for solar or against it—in mid-December.”