February 5, 2020

Bills aimed at improving energy efficiency for low-income households passes Senate committee

Matthew Reichbach

The Senate Conservation Committee passed a pair of bills designed to help low-income households in the state become more energy efficient.

Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino first presented SB 114  to the Senate Conservation Committee. The bill would create a new $6 million community energy efficiency block grant program, administered by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s (EMNRD) Energy Conservation Division.

The block grant bill would be available to communities to provide energy efficient measures to low-income households. It is supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but is not presently funded in the current adopted budget, HB 2.

“We recognize that the least expensive kilowatt of energy is the one that we don’t have to generate,” Ortiz y Pino told committee members. “This is a bill that’s designed to provide a way for low-income households to be able to take advantage of more efficient appliances, more efficient insulation, to have a whole energy audit done and to take advantage of the savings that are realized from that — savings economically, and savings to our whole society in terms of the reduced energy that would be demanded.”

Communities would be able to apply for funds from the program with a local community partner, such as  an organization that works with low-income families, or a community action agency, to take lead on the local implementation of the program. Energy audits would need to be conducted to ensure the program is getting the biggest bang for its buck.

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Santa Fe Democratic Rep. Andrea Romero, who is co-sponsoring the bill, added that the bill would also help the state realize its clean energy goals.

“This is about access and promoting clean energy options in our state. We have a lot of old housing stock and we’d like to be able to give this opportunity to low-income families who could really use it,” Romero said. “It’s not just the cheapest energy when you’re not using it, it’s also the cleanest energy when you’re not using it.”

Democratic Sen. William Soules of Las Cruces questioned whether the program would be able to ensure the best use of the $6 million.

“My question is how much is the energy audit going to cost? I could see the audits could be very expensive compared to what they’re actually getting in terms of efficient bulbs and insulation,” Soules said.

“It would be up to the department to actually find projects that don’t waste money on administrative costs,” Ortiz y Pino said. “The anticipation is that they will be receiving proposals from a number of communities, they’ll have to select from among those, and the criteria they establish will be the basis for making sure a lot of money isn’t being spent on something that actually doesn’t produce a benefit.”

Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, raised concerns that the state already has a number of energy efficiency programs in place.

“It seems to me we’ve got different agencies in the state trying to do a lot of the same work,” Woods said. “Wouldn’t it be more economical to put all these programs under one agency? Instead of a duplication of effort?”

He pointed to SB 153, the second legislation heard by the committee on Tuesday that would help low-income families make energy efficiency upgrades to homes. The bill is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Richard Martinez, who represents parts of Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties.

SB 153 asks for a one-time $2 million appropriation from the general fund to the department of finance administration to support the Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA) in providing a residential energy conservation program to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy expenditures of homes occupied by low-income persons in New Mexico. The MFA is a quasi-governmental entity that uses federal and local funds to help New Mexico residents acquire financing for affordable housing.

“It’s a different deal, but it also works with low-income, paying bills and energy efficiencies and that kind of stuff,” Woods said.

Fellow Republican Sen. Will Payne agreed.

“I don’t see why we can’t roll this bill into Sen. Martinez’s bill and enact a separate section for energy efficiency programs,” Payne said. “That seems to be what everyone is saying, that it makes no sense for [EMNRD] to create their own program doing this when we already have an organization.”

Ortiz y Pino said his bill is designed to work alongside the MFA program in order to reach more low-income New Mexicans.

“We’re trying to make sure that the program that MFA runs and this program are in close collaboration, so they’re not duplicating, they’re not going into the same households in the same neighborhoods,” Ortiz y Pino said. “This would be an opportunity to reach communities and native tribes, for example, that haven’t so far been able to participate in the MFA program.”

SB 114 ultimately passed, with Republicans Woods, Payne and Ron Griggs of Alamogordo opposing the bill. The bill heads to the Senate Finance Committee next.

During a later presentation, Martinez told the committee his bill would provide energy efficiency and weatherizing upgrades to just 300 households. That’s only a portion of the homes the MFA estimates are in need of such upgrades.

“We could use a lot more money. Any money we can get we will utilize,” Martinez said.

The bill passed unanimously and heads to the Senate Finance Committee next.