Alibi V.28 No.5 • Jan 31-Feb 6, 2019 

News Commentary

Renew that Energy, New Mexicans!

Renewable Portfolio Standard should change

A wind farm in eastern New Mexico
A wind farm in eastern New Mexico
El Cabo Wind Farm

One of the planks in the progressive platform is about renewable energy. Simply stated, that means moving—as a culture and as New Mexico—away from unrenewable, global warming-causing energy sources like coal and natural gas.

As you may already know, these aforementioned fuels—for everything from vehicular transportation to our electrical generation for cities—comes from the organic remnants of life forms that existed on Earth millions of years ago. Besides being intrinsically polluting, these resources are temporary: There is only so much dinosaur juice left in the third rock from the sun.

Attempts to stretch this amount to fill the needs of the Postmodern world has resulted in environmentally disastrous ideas and programs like fracking and drilling for oil in the last green frontiers of the planet Earth.

The solution, say the progressives, is to move as quickly as possible away from these planet-killing products and towards safe, renewable and sustainable forms of energy like those produced by solar and wind processes.

In the Land of Enchantment, progressive Democratic leaders, including US Senator Martin Heinrich and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, are committed to moving toward clean energy production, transmission and usage that will provide jobs, drive economic sustainability and most importantly, remove our state’s lips from the awful, Earth-destroying teat of the coal and natural gas industries.

With 300 days of sunshine per year and a naturally windy environment, New Mexico seems the perfect place to define, launch and let prosper alternative means of gathering power for homes and businesses.

Currently the state Legislature requires that public utilities produce a certain amount of energy from clean sources like solar and wind power. This legislatively enforced regulation is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard or RPS.

Under Governor Martinez, that number was stuck at 20 percent, a heady, nationally notable number to be sure, but one that still signified the preeminence of the the fossil fuel industries in determining our state’s energy future.

With Democrats in charge of the Roundhouse, that’s all about to change. The current RPS will expire in 2020. A bill being investigated by the the Legislature, SB 275, cosponsored by Albuquerque Democrat Senator Mimi Stewart, would bring big changes to energy standards in the state.

Under the proposed legislation, the Renewable Portfolio Standard would be revised to require public utilities like PNM to get 50 percent of their resources from renewable sources like solar and wind by the year 2030. Further, the bill proposes that by 2040, energy producers like PNM, El Paso Electric and other corporate utilities would be required to gather a minimum of 80 percent of the energy they sell to New Mexicans from renewable sources like solar and wind.

Our new governor recently stated that she is on board with this Earth-friendly goal, writing, “I have committed to increasing our RPS … Not as a ceiling but as a starting point, with an ultimate goal of even greater renewable production. This is our promise to future generations of New Mexicans.”

After hearing all of that, Weekly Alibi decided to go to the source of the legislation for more comment and clarification. While bill sponsor Stewart was meeting with the governor on the subject of renewable energy and the bill’s progress, we chatted with energy advocate Ben Shelton, the political and legislative director of New Mexico Conservation Voters, a long-time proponent and lobbyist for the plan.

Weekly Alibi: Let’s talk New Mexico and renewables.

Ben Shelton: Okay. As a threshold matter, the thing that’s been crowding out renewables in New Mexico has not been natural gas but coal. In this state, we currently don’t get much energy from natural gas. Coal has definitively been the big fish. Really the question that this RPS bill this year presents is “what are we going to replace that coal with?”

How much energy does coal currently provide New Mexicans?

In the last two years, it’s about 50 percent for PNM, a huge percentage. They’re scaling that down. It’s different for the other investor-owned utilities that serve the state like El Paso Electric. But coal, particularly from the Four Corners and San Juan Generating Stations, has been a massive source of energy for PNM and EPE.

So even as PNM scales down coal use—and I’m told some investor-owned utilities moving toward natural gas—the Legislature is proposing that such corporations get at least 50 percent of their output from renewable resources. How is that new regulation going to change things in New Mexico?

When PNM goes to replace that coal, when the San Juan Generating Station is totally closed, they’ve got to replace that energy with something. The question is: “Are citizens going to pay a little bit more for natural gas or less for renewables?”

Are renewables cheaper than continued reliance on fossil fuels?

That is definitely the case in the open market. It’s going to depend on some other factors, but here are some quick numbers: Natural gas comes in at about six cents per kilowatt hour; bids for solar, meanwhile come in at four cents for kilowatt hour; for wind it goes as low as two cents per kilowatt hour. That’s on the open market in this part of the country. When you think about the fantastic solar assets in this state, you think about the critical wind infrastructure we’ve built—particularly in the eastern part of the state—you definitely see those bids tending toward the low end.

What sort of solar and wind facilities is our state building?

When you see the new transmission lines coming in, especially east-west transmission lines, they’re coming from projects like Clean Line Energy. Their transmission lines are carrying wind power from eastern New Mexico to consumers in California. We’re already reaping benefits from selling energy to markets outside of this state. The demand in California, on their power grid, when everybody gets home and fires up the teevee and oven happens at about the same time as generation of wind power in eastern New Mexico reaches its daily peak. Both times of day line up really well, so we have good demand for our wind power right now. But what a lot of people don’t get is that we could be consuming a whole lot of demand in New Mexico. When there’s more demand in this state, it becomes more cost effective.

Can we provide sustainable energy resources for our state as well as profiting from outside entities like California?

Though the bill itself doesn’t require export, but I will tell you this: When you build up the grid, when you build up the resources, you build up the industry and the state profits.

What other sustainable benefits will this legislation engender; what will the economic impact look like?

Over the last five or six years, we’ve seen that jobs—particularly those about rooftop solar installation business—are exploding. [That industry] has been adding 500 to 1,000 jobs per year to this state. That was even after the tax credit for solar rooftop systems expired. The industry continues to add jobs. The solar industry is actually one of the business concerns in this state that local entrepreneurs can get into.

When you think about the oil and gas industry, you have to have millions of dollars in capital to make it work. It’s much easier to start a small business around solar. So this isn’t just about creating jobs, it’s about creating jobs that people can graduate from college and get into so they can stay in New Mexico. Increasingly we’re seeing similar benefits for jobs in the wind industry. These are going to be union jobs, well paid jobs.

There’s also a lot of room for growth through diversification. There are only three states in the country, I think, that do not have the facilities to manufacture wind turbine parts. There is no reason we shouldn’t also develop a manufacturing facility in New Mexico.

Doesn’t that sort of building of infrastructure cost money that might be passed on to the consumer?

I get asked that question a lot. That’s true. It costs money. Building facilities for energy generation costs money. But here’s the thing: We’re going to have to build new facilities anyway. Between now and the mid-’20s we’re at an inflection point in New Mexico; we’re retiring a lot of resources, retiring the San Juan Generating Station. The Four Corners Generating Station is the other big coal plant; that’s going to be gone within a decade. This isn’t a matter of how much money the change will cost, but how much it costs compared to other options.

If we choose this renewable route through the RPS, our state is going to save money. Consumers will have more money in their pockets. If we replace all this coal with natural gas, it’s going to be more expensive. And when you burn natural gas you are putting carbon in the atmosphere. The other kicker with natural gas is the extraction process, you end up venting a lot of methane into the air. Methane is about 20 more times effective than carbon dioxide is in trapping heat in our atmosphere. We have got to get our part of solving the climate change problem in hand.