February 26, 2021

Community solar bill heads to Senate floor

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A bill that would enable communities to subscribe to solar electricity without needing to install solar panels on their homes passed the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee Thursday. The bill would direct the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to develop and adopt rules to implement a community solar program in the state. 

Community solar refers to “large, local solar arrays” that are “shared by individual community members who receive credits on their electricity bills for their portion of the power produced,” said Democratic Senator Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, who is one of 10 sponsors of SB 84

“Community solar makes solar power available to people who can’t access it for reasons such as renting, finances, apartment ownership, home type, etc,” Stefanics said. She added that the bill would likely lead to job creation and other economic benefits. 

“There’s a great deal of job creation in the solar industry. There are lease payments to landowners, as well as to other sectors, and many economic benefits to the state and counties,” Stefanics said. 

Both PNM and El Paso Electric spoke against the bill, as did Xcel Energy and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce. The bill was supported by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Kit Carson Electric Coop in Taos, the Coalition of Sustainable Communities New Mexico, Earthcare, YUCCA and the NAVA Education Project, among other groups. 

The committee spent about four hours debating the technical aspects of the bill.  Much of the debate focused on impacts to non-participating ratepayers and low-income ratepayers in communities that might adopt community solar, as well as tribal communities.

Rick Gilliam, program director at the Vote Solar Initiative and expert witness for the bill, explained that the bill contains provisions specifically addressing ways that low-income residents can participate in the program.  

“Community solar is structured so that from day one, those customers would receive a benefit,” he said. 

He also stated that the program would save ratepayers and utilities money. 

“The savings related to community solar on the entire system exceed their costs,” he said. 

Las Cruces Democratic Sen. Carrie Hamblen said she believes the bill would help create a more robust solar industry in the state. 

“I feel that we have some great opportunities with this,” she said. “With 350 days of sunlight here we would be foolish, foolish to overlook this and not start putting this into those communities that can benefit a great deal from it.”

Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque said he was conflicted on the bill but ultimately voted against it. 

“I think it’s about 95 percent there,” he said. “I think it could do with some more homework.”

The bill ultimately passed with a 5-4 vote. It heads to the Senate floor next.