New Mexico's fight for 'community solar' continues with House, Senate memorials

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

New Mexico House lawmakers are not giving up on establishing community solar legislation, despite the death of a bill in the House intended to create and regulate the concept in New Mexico.

House Bill 9, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-13) which would have created community solar in New Mexico, died last week after going to a vote in the House despite passage from the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month.

But Roybal Caballero also sponsored House Memorial 62, which would establish a “working group” to study statewide community solar efforts and make recommendations to the State for putting the concept into practice.

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An identical memorial was introduced in the New Mexico Senate, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics.

If passed, the memorials would call on the New Mexico Legislative Council to arrange for a third-party facilitator to establish a working group by March 21.

New Mexico Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero

The group would review community solar projects across the state and make recommendations to lawmakers for their implementation.

Community solar is the practice of allowing groups of electricity customers to opt-in to solar energy produced at an installation of their property.

More:Bill increasing access to solar energy moves forward in New Mexico House

The resulting “solar farms” can provide solar energy to several customers who might not be able to afford building their own installations.

The working group, under the bill, would be made up of representatives from the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), the Public Regulation Commission, utility companies, energy cooperatives, and representatives from the renewable energy industry.

Membership could also include local and tribal governments, along with environmental organizations and interested members of community.

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The group would be required to present its findings and recommendations to lawmakers by Oct. 1.

“Solar energy is an environmentally friendly renewable energy source that can help reduce electricity bills and has diverse applications,” read the bill. “Solar energy production has risen over the course of the past several years, and this trend is expected to continue.”

By the middle of 2018, 5.3 gigawatts of solar energy capacity were installed across the United States, read the bill, producing enough energy to power 11 million homes.

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Meanwhile, employment in the solar industry created about 93,000 to 250,000 jobs from 2010 to 2017, the bill read.

The bill pointed to the high cost of solar installations and that most of the 32 percent of households in New Mexico that rented and 30 percent of households below the poverty line would be unable to afford or install rooftop solar panels.

“Rooftop solar is generally not affordable nor accessible to low-income families and renters,” the bill read. “Community solar allows for low-income families and renters to access solar energy and reduce their electricity bills.”

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Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. already have programs to support community solar, the bill read, and New Mexico should follow suit due to its frequent sunny days throughout the year.

USA Today reported Albuquerque has about 310 sunny days per year.

“With its abundance of sunshine, New Mexico is among the states that can derive the greatest benefits from solar energy production,” the bill read.

“Community solar initiatives would allow for local governments, multiple individuals and entities to share the benefits of a single solar facility to which they subscribe and obtain monetary credit on their utility bills for a portion of the solar power produced.”

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During a hearing on HB 9, Carlos Lucero of the Public Service Company of New Mexico said community solar projects would not allow New Mexico to transition away from fossil fuel energy in the near term, which was demanded by the Energy Transition Act signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“Community solar sounds great buts its main challenge is it doesn’t do anything for the future to help reduce carbon emissions, and in fact forces the continued the burning fossil fuels,” he said.

“Community solar installations put a large amount of energy on the grid during times of day when it would not be used, which means in order for the energy to be used, you would need a way to store it.”

More:Could New Mexico go solar? Bill provides tax relief for those giving it a shot

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard supported the efforts, said State Land Office spokesperson Tarrin Nix.

She said the State Land Office has already begun work to increase the use and access of solar power for New Mexicans.

“Commissioner (Stephanie) Garcia Richard supports this bill,” Nix said. “For our office, we have 46 renewable energy projects, 26 of which are solar, and a large chunk would benefit from this bill. We stand in support.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.