New Mexico Is Drenched in Solar-Sunshine, so What’s With All the Coal PNM?

July 2013

The Public Service Company of New Mexico is taking tottering baby-steps when it comes to solar energy. PNM has a mere 1 percent of solar on its renewable energy books — ironic when New Mexico’s state flag boasts a blazing yellow sun. Environmentalists worry the company’s plan to increase solar to 5 percent by 2020, may be too little too late for New Mexicans.

There are currently four fires raging, and more than 100,000 acres burnt in New Mexico, and it is only June. Temperatures in the state are going up faster than other global temperature averages, while drought conditions are the worst in the nation, according to the U.S Drought Monitor.

On the global scale, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit 400 parts per million in May — recorded at the U.S Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. And the news just keeps getting worse: the International Energy Agency says two thirds of those emissions come from the energy sector, and last year those emissions reached a record high of 31.6 billion tons.

As the biggest coal burner, PNM may be the biggest producer of greenhouse gas pollution in New Mexico. But like many big utilities, the company just can’t seem to break-up with the dirtiest-of-dirty fossil fuels — King Coal. PNM’s Valerie Smith, insists coal still offers the best price for customers and profit margin for shareholders. As for solar, she says, “there is a lot of solar potential, it’s just more than we need at this time.”

Which is legally true. Having that 1 percent of solar means PNM meets the 2013 state rule for 10 percent renewable energy — when added to PNM’s purchased wind capacity and the solar already provided by residents and businesses. In fact, privately installed solar panels surpass PNM’s own solar capabilities.

But while utility companies can cozy up and include privately owned solar as part of their renewable energy portfolios, it’s not an easy marriage. Independently installed solar is public enemy number one, according to a report released earlier this year by the Edison Electric Institute – the trade group of investor-owned utilities such as PNM. The report warns of trouble on two fronts, firstly it cites “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” as more customers generate solar energy, buy less from the utilities and are credited for excess energy produced. Secondly, decreased demand increases rates to other customers, which hurts a utility’s credit rating, decreasing attractiveness to investors. Though it may take a while, the report notes it’s a given that investors will eventually, “realize that the viability of the business is in question.”

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