In the past few years, Gov. Bill Richardson has repeatedly been quoted saying he plans to make New Mexico the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” So how is the former Energy Secretary keeping his promise? And what—besides declaring New Mexico a “clean energy state” and mugging through photo ops while switching from a Lincoln Navigator to a hybrid Ford Escape SUV—has the governor done to make New Mexico a more efficient, more alternative energy kind of state?
“He's done more in 30 months for clean energy and energy efficiency than any other governor in world history,” says Ned Farquhar, the governor's energy policy advisor. “His philosophy—which preceded the change in energy prices—is to change the policy field so that renewables can compete as much as possible with conventional energy sources.”
The governor has certainly been a major advocate for renewable energy in the West and in New Mexico, says Ben Luce, policy director of the nonprofit New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy. In his capacity as chair of the Western Governor's Association, Richardson worked with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote a new Clean and Diversified Energy Initiative; in the absence of federal leadership, western states are looking to develop 30,000 megawatts (1 megawatt supplies about 1,000 homes) of new clean energy and to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent, says Luce.
Today, coal-fired power plants supply more than 50 percent of the nation's electricity, and New Mexico alone receives more than 85 percent of its electricity from coal. These plants throw into the air everything from climate-changing carbon and the neurotoxin mercury to smog- and haze-inducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Needless to say, relying less on belching power plants and more on homegrown solar or even large-scale wind would help ease environmental and public health problems across the region.
Here in New Mexico, Richardson supported the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard. Passed last year, it requires that by 2011, 10 percent of the energy provided by all investor-owned utilities, such as PNM, be from renewable sources. He's also supported setting aside about $10 million a year for making public buildings more energy efficient, and promoted the Clean Energy Revenue Bond initiative. That bill allows schools and state agencies to issue up to $20 million in bonds for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
One of the governor's biggest plans for the future involves the creation of a Renewable Energy Transmission and Storage Transmission Authority, which would store wind or solar energy in the form of hydrogen or compressed air, as well as prioritize powerlines for transmission of wind-generated electricity. As it stands now, many utilities complain that wind power is unreliable and unpredictable—winds can whip along just fine, then grind to a halt during times of peak electricity consumption. Finding a way to store that energy would be ideal and, says Farquhar, would open new markets for New Mexico wind farms.
There's still plenty of work to do on the state level. Luce and the Coalition are lobbying the Legislature to pass a solar tax credit—which the governor supported and has said he will prioritize during next spring's session. The credit would piggyback onto a 30-percent solar credit recently passed by the federal government, making solar more affordable for the average New Mexican. Luce and the Coalition are also encouraging the Public Regulation Commission to approve a new customer PV buyback program that would allow homeowners who generate solar energy to receive an additional payment of between 11 and 15 cents per kilowatt hour for the extra energy they produce. Currently, solar users who are connected to the grid pay lower electricity bills, but don't receive extra incentives for cutting their energy use and can't sell the surplus energy they create off their systems.
“With high gas prices, politically, legislators and other government officials are receptive [to renewables] right now,” says Luce. “They're willing to put a lot more money toward these things.” But that doesn't mean the public should sit back and assume government officials will fix today's energy crisis: “We're working as hard as we can to utterly transform the economy in the state to a clean energy economy. But people really need to take some responsibility, on a personal level in their homes, but on a policy level [as well], by making sure legislators are doing the right thing—and not just following business as usual.”