On August 17th, Southwestern Public Service Company (SPS) filed a Motion to Stay Implementation of Community Solar at the NM Supreme Court. This after ten years fighting against Community Solar legislation, a protest against the rules adopted, and then a failed petition at the PRC to delay implementation. The Community Solar bill itself was so watered down by the time it passed that its impact on the Investor Owned Utility (IOU) profits will be minimal - limited to 200MW developed each year.
The IOU's are fighting tooth and nail because Community Solar represents a tiny threat to its monopoly control over energy sales. With more than 7800 applications for solar interconnection in the pipeline - more than 500MW - and a projected substantial boost to the state economy of $517 million in economic benefits, and $147 million in labor income, (according to a study by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research), the only thing standing in the way of a rapid and necessary shift to renewable energy is the desire of these private companies to continue to build and own all energy in the state, and demand their 10% interest from ratepayers for the privilege. They do not want to shift to cheap solar and wind because the less they spend on energy infrastructure, the less money they can charge us in interest. And they certainly do not want any competitive generation to be allowed, because the only thing that matters to them is profit.
This phenomenon is not limited to New Mexico. In June we joined more than 230 consumer, environmental and public interest groups to petition the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the electric utility industry for widespread abuses. These include bribery, fake dark-money campaigns and denying customers access to renewable energy. Abusive utility practices lead to increased electricity rates, obstruction of clean energy competitors in the face of climate change, and utility interference in democratic processes. Examples we cited included:
An Ohio utility, FirstEnergy, paid $60 million in bribes to the Ohio House speaker’s political machine. In return the utility secured a $1 billion ratepayer-funded bailout for several of its unprofitable nuclear and coal plants.
Florida Power and Light spent millions of dollars on political consultants who engineered a scheme to siphon votes to third-party “ghost candidates” from candidates committed to holding utilities accountable, according to reporting by the Orlando Sentinel. The ghost candidate won in all three races. One utility opponent lost by just 32 votes.
A recent national survey found that nearly three-quarters of solar developers experience delays in interconnecting projects to the electric grid. Eighty-five percent of respondents specifically named utility noncompliance with interconnection procedures as a problem. These delays can increase the cost of distributed solar projects and cause customers to back out of long-delayed projects. Minnesota regulators fined Xcel Energy $1 million for failing to keep pace with a backlog of projects. Two years later the backlog remains a barrier to solar growth.
And who can forget our very own potential energy overlords, Avangrid and Iberdrola, who are currently facing complaints for interconnection delays at their subsidiaries on the east coast.
What is the remedy? The remedy is to put public wellbeing at the center of energy policy through public ownership of energy infrastructure. One option is Local Choice Energy. Right now there are three Investor Owned Utilities (IOU) in New Mexico that serve 73% of New Mexico households - PNM, SPS and EPE. They were granted monopoly rights to 1) generate energy 2) transmit that energy, and then 3) distribute it locally to homes in their service area. Local Choice Energy legislation would give local governments the option to compete - to build and/or purchase electricity while still utilizing transmission and distribution service from their existing utility provider.
New Mexico leadership has the power and needs the political will to break up the IOU's monopoly on energy generation, opening the floodgates to the clean solar, wind and battery storage that we need.