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City's PUC approves electricity rate increase

Following the meeting, Mike Eisenfeld, who is with the environmental group San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, expressed frustration that some city officials continue to say solar users have been subsidized.

Leigh Black Irvin, lirvin@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON — The Farmington Public Utility Commission voted during a meeting todayto recommend that the City Council approve a proposed electricity rate change.

San Juan Regional Medical Center's solar farm is pictured Monday in Farmington. Under a new rate scale approved by the Farmington Public Utility Commission Wednesday, customers who use both locally generated and solar energy will pay a set amount based on the size of their solar array

The proposals being discussed were for rate scales that would increase over a period of three or four years. In November, the commission had received a detailed presentation on the two rate design proposals. During today's meeting, the commission, following a recommendation by City Manager Rob Mayes, agreed to recommend the three-year rate design.

If the City Council approves the change, electric rates for residential customers will increase by 7.7 percent over three years. For a residential customer who currently pays $70.21 per month for electricity, that amounts to an increase to $75.61 per month by the end of the three years.

“That’s about a $5 increase, which is less than the cost of a cup of coffee,” Electric Utility System Director Hank Adair told the commission.

Larger electricity users, who may pay a current monthly rate of $24,342, will be paying only 1 percent more at the end of three years, for a monthly rate of $24,586.

Some discussion about the rate design came when Commissioner Gordon Glass expressed concern that the rate increase treats all customers the same. He said it doesn’t take into account different types of customers who may choose to use less energy or supplement electric power with alternative forms of energy.

“We want pricing that is consistent among all classes, but it seems to me we take a risk in treating everyone identically," Glass said. "What about customers who, because of limited means, choose to use less electricity? They’ll actually be paying more. The signal (under the proposed rate design) is that the more electricity you use, the less you pay, and I’m not sure ‘equalization’ is the right thing to do.”

Commissioner Carol Cloer disagreed.

“At some point, we still have to provide everyone with electricity,” said Cloer. “Life isn’t fair. It’s tough, and we still have to pay the bills.”

The issue of the 100 local customers who use both solar and city electricity was raised. Previous discussions of the rate changes had solar proponents concerned because a standby service rider for customers who generate some of their own power through alternative methods, like solar panels, will pay a set amount based on the size of their solar array. The rider applies to customers who install solar panels after the rate change takes effect.

“Under this (design), why would I want to invest in solar when it would cost me more per month?” Glass asked. “What’s the vision of Farmington Electric, to take into account customers who are different? Do we want solar to be a part of a future system, because in these circumstances, it would end solar.”

Cloer countered that extra expenses to maintain infrastructure for those using both solar and city electric would not be cost effective.

“I don’t know if our goal should be to encourage everyone to be on solar,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to run this system.”

Commissioner Chris Hunter agreed with Cloer.

“I think we’ve done a fair job to empower people to do what they want to do without penalizing others,” he said.

The vote to recommend the three-phase rate change passed with all commissioners except Glass casting yes votes.

Following the meeting, Mike Eisenfeld of the environmental group the San Juan Citizens Alliance, who is also an electric and solar energy user, expressed frustration that some city officials continue to say solar users have been subsidized under the current system.

“The idea that we’re subsidized because we have solar is just ridiculous. My family invested in solar six years ago because we are committed to our community, and now people who do half solar and half electricity will be penalized,” he said.

Eisenfeld said he would have liked to see the meeting opened up to public comment.

Mayes told The Daily Times following the meeting that commission meetings are advisory in nature and are not open to public comment. But he said those wishing to speak about the issue can do so when the matter is brought before the City Council in January.

“The main thing I want to get across is that the policy of the city regarding solar is neutral — we’re neither for it or against it,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be subsidizing it as we’ve been doing under our current policy.”

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.