A Dose of Sunshine
Six new bills will promote renewable energy conversion
By Christie Chisholm
Here comes the sun, legislatively speaking. And for solar power advocates, it's about time considering our state is soaked in sunbeams more than 300 days a year and solar power could be produced here in abundance.
Starting last year, Gov. Bill Richardson organized six specialized task forces to concentrate on renewable energy, and they've yielded some interesting results. Six bills have formed, built from the recommendations of each group, which are intended to greatly promote renewable energy in the state.
The bills focus on an array of issues, ranging from tax credits to homeowners and businesses who buy solar powered systems, to providing incentives for those who build green homes ("green" referring to homes which, to phrase it loosely, conserve energy in a variety of ways). One bill even promises to make public schools and other state buildings more energy efficient through a $20 million Solar Revenue Bond, wherein the state would pay back the bond through its energy savings, while another would require utility companies to conduct studies on energy efficiency and implement energy-saving programs as a result of their research. Yet another bill would require utilities to buy back energy that is returned to the grid from buildings powered by renewable sources.
The creation of the bills, which were slated to be introduced at the 2005 legislative session on Jan. 18 (after this story went to press), sparked the rebirth of an organization that, for several years, has been inactive. The formerly New Mexico Solar Energy Industry Association re-emerged a couple months ago as the Renewable Energy Industries Association of New Mexico (REIA-NM), and has come together once again for a purpose. The organization, which formed 25 years ago and consists entirely of folks who work in the renewable energy industry, has been relatively silent for the past five years because there hasn't been any significant activity in the state, says Odes Armijo-Caster, REIA-NM president. "But when there are policies that start affecting us, it brings us all back together again," says Armijo-Caster.
And many have come together, primarily to make sure that any new legislative work for energy done in the state is conducted wisely, and that it represents the interests of local businesses, ensuring that the "little guy" prospers along with large utility companies. REIA-NM's members are largely in support of the proposed bills and believe as a whole that the new legislation would be a positive direction not only for the industry, but for the state as well.
The bills, however, do not garner the support of everyone in the industry. To understand why, it's necessary to begin with a little history. The last time New Mexico, along with all other states in the nation, experienced tax credits on renewable energy it was strictly for solar power, and it was more than 20 years ago. The tax credits were originally put in place during the Carter administration and were allowed to expire in 1986 during the Reagan years. The result of the solar tax credits, in the view of many in the solar energy industry, was essentially that of sabotage. This was because the tax credit was based on the cost of the solar system and not based on the system's performance, according to Lu Yoder, a solar energy consultant. The market was awash with shoddy products designed only to take advantage of the tax credits. The result, he says, was that honest solar businesses were driven under and the consumer experienced what became known in the solar energy industry as “sunburn.” When the tax breaks went away, so did the opportunists, and the remaining honest solar businesses were left to clean up the mess the tax credit era had caused to solar's reputation. This effectively sustained the entrenched financial hold the oil, nuclear power, natural gas and coal industries have had on our nation's energy supply, Yoder says.
Today, the intention for the bills is to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that a number of stringent guidelines and certification measures are enforced. But there are those who are not so eager to forget the mistakes of the past. Steve Baer, president of Zomeworks Corporation, an Albuquerque-based business specializing in solar technologies for the past 25 years, is one such man. Baer believes that the proposed tax credits will lead to a repeat of the past, and that they'll only end up hurting the renewable energy industry. He says that by focusing on pricy equipment like photovoltaic panels (i.e. solar electric panels), the government is creating an unfair niche, where those who employ less expensive means of energy-conservation are ignored. People who use fireplaces instead of heaters, for instance, or who utilize passive solar strategies such as opening the blinds at night and closing them during the day to keep a home cool, wouldn't benefit at all from government subsidy, he says, while taxpayer funds would be used to create an imbalance in a free market economy.
Yet, there are still many who favor the proposed bills and who believe that the governor's initiative will bring renewed interest to the industry. Marlene Brown, president of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, thinks that the new legislation will bring greater public awareness of alternative energy and make it more affordable. She says that with adequate measures in place, there should be no fear of the government repeating past mistakes.
Ben Luce, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, who served on three task forces and chaired one, says that the recommendations were modest and that an effort was made to promote the quality of services in the industry through a rigid set of eligibility requirements for tax credits.
The bills are also largely supported from an environmental perspective. Leanne Leith of New Mexico Public Interest Research Group, summed up the hopeful mood following last week's announced legislative proposals. "New Mexico is perfectly situated to generate renewable energy and really take advantage of the movement in western states to transform our economy from dirty power sources to clean power sources."
During the legislative session, citizens are encouraged to contact their elected officials to talk about bills and express their concerns. To receive daily updates, visit www.cfcae.org. ;
For those who want to find out more about how renewable energy works, check out this women's-only workshop offered this spring, where you'll learn over the course of two weekends how to size design and install a photovoltaic (solar electric) system:
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