Don’t Let Big Utilities Dominate Solar

Regina Wheeler, Contributor
Sunpower by Positive Energy Solar CEO
12/11/2017 10:01 am ET

Santa Fe leaders should ensure that clean energy resources are owned by the people — not investor-obsessed utility monopolies.

Santa Fe has long been on the cutting edge of green innovation. Under Mayor Javier Gonzales, the city has pioneered programs like the Verde Fund to fight climate change and poverty as well as a tiered water-pricing system to spur cost-effective conservation.

But, this month, the city is on the verge of taking a backward step.

The City Council is poised to vote on a resolution that sets the stage for construction of a new 3.5-megawatt photovoltaic project to be built, owned, and operated by the investor-owned utility monopoly, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM).

While we need a quick transition to clean energy, this decision would, in fact, hurt the cause. By creating a precedent of letting monopoly players dominate public solar projects, the plan would undermine New Mexico’s diverse and competitive clean energy sector—potentially putting small clean energy firms out of business.

 

But—for the sake of our energy future—these old-school energy behemoths can’t be allowed to dominate the new energy economy. Monopolies like PNM can use their extreme market power to seize an unfair market advantage. Over time, this would mean less innovation on both technology and service, as well as less competition on price. When big utility monopolies like PNM own the solar resources, ratepayers are still subject to the unpredictable rate hikes and the consequences of investment decisions that prioritize out-of-state investors over the public.

The plan to have PNM build and operate Santa Fe’s new municipal solar installations sets a dangerous precedent.

As other cities and towns around the state and nation build their own installations to take advantage of cost, quality, and environmental benefits, they’re likely to follow Santa Fe’s example. If our city turns to a utility monopoly that’s owned by out-of-state investors simply because it seems like an easy default option, we’ll see others follow suit. This could destroy the diverse and competitive ecosystem of solar installers in New Mexico and beyond.

It’s not too late for Santa Fe’s leaders to fix the plan and support local clean energy. The Mayor and City Council should take immediate steps to:

· Revise the resolution to clarify that this project is not just between the city and PNM, but rather subject to an open and competitive process.

· Seek community input and involvement in the city’s solar development, including by reconvening the city’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Task Force.

· Ensure necessary transparency by having a third-party reviewer analyze PNM’s promises to the city.

· Work with state leaders to allow Community Solar—shared energy projects that allow groups of people to own a stake ​in or purchase power​ from “solar gardens.” This creates jobs, cuts costs, and empowers lower-income residents to access clean power.

While big utilities like PNM can have a role in the rise of renewables through grid modernization, utility-scale renewable projects, energy efficiency programs and other clean power efforts, we need to keep community projects like the Santa Fe initiative community owned and operated. Individual and public ownership of solar keeps the cost of energy fixed while keeping control inside the community.

It’s good news that Santa Fe’s city government is serious about transitioning to clean energy. It’s essential for our air and water, and it’s also welcome development for our economy. But policymakers can’t shut out locally owned and operated businesses by opting for insider deal-making with old-school energy profiteers. Our leaders need to support fair and competitive clean energy markets. A sustainable energy future depends on public participation and community ownership.

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