January 11, 2023

Big change in new-look PRC on the eve of its first meeting

A day before the newly appointed members of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission are scheduled to meet, Brian Moore, the sole Republican nominated to serve on the body, resigned.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she has appointed James Ellison Jr. to the position.

The law requires that no more than two of the appointed commissioners can be of the same party. Ellison is registered as decline to state, which means he does not identify with any political party.

Moore resigned because he did not meet the educational qualifications for the position.

The other two appointees—Patrick O’Connell and Gabriel Aguilera—are Democrats.

Ellison currently works at Sandia National Laboratories as the principal grid analyst for the grid modernization group. He has nearly three decades of experience in electric utility operations and power markets.

“I know what it takes to keep the lights on,” he said in his application to serve on the PRC. “The transition to renewable energy needs to be handled carefully in order for reliability to be maintained. While ensuring the affordability of rates is a key goal, the Commission must also allow utilities to have the resources and tools needed for success.”

This transition to renewable energy sources is also something that O’Connell and Aguilera are focused on. 

O’Connell formerly worked as the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s director of planning and resources but, most recently, he has advocated for clean energy as part of the group Western Resource Advocates.

Meanwhile, Aguilera has spent more than a decade in the utility regulatory sphere.

The first meeting of the new PRC is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. This will be the first time the commissioners are not elected officials after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2020. The agenda includes introduction and opening statements by the new commissioners as well as discussion about creating the new tribal advisory committee. 

When the governor announced her nominees for the PRC, she also issued an executive order calling for the creation of a tribal advisory council. This comes after concerns that Native Americans, especially in the northwest part of the state, were losing representation on the powerful state regulatory body.

In the executive order, Lujan Grisham stated that she is concerned about the lack of representation because the PRC’s work is important to the Native communities and that the changes in the PRC make it difficult to ensure continuity of Native representation.

In the past, commissioners have been elected to represent five regions of New Mexico. That changed with a constitutional amendment resulting in the governor appointing three members to the PRC to replace the five members. A nominating committee provided Lujan Grisham with a list of nine candidates to choose from. 

The idea behind the change was that having an appointed body would lead to more expertise in regulating transportation and utility matters.

Prior to resigning from the post, Moore told NM Political Report that he believes the new process of appointing PRC commissioners will solve some of the problems that have occurred in the past.

“A lot of times people got on PRC with hopes of setting themselves up for higher positions,” he said about the past process of electing commissioners.

Aguilera told NM Political Report that he hopes to make informed and reasoned decisions while on the PRC and to engage with stakeholders in a way that properly considers their views on the matters. Aguilera said he hopes the commissioners can instill confidence in the public regarding decisions.

“I also want to ensure that the PRC successfully carries out its mission and responsibilities,” he said, adding that the PRC has some big responsibilities including overseeing implementation of the Energy Transition Act.

“These appointees are experienced professionals who have the skills needed to oversee an energy transition that is affordable, effective and equitable for every New Mexico community,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release announcing their appointment. “I’m grateful to each of these individuals for providing their expertise in service of our state.”

Aguilera anticipates several challenges over the next few years that the PRC will have to face. He said like other western states, resource advocacy will be a challenge in New Mexico. Aguilera said climate change impacts like  increased wildfire threats, hotter summers and colder winters will also impact electric utilities in the future.

“All those things are things that we can overcome by working together,” he said.

He said industry, stakeholders, lawmakers and the PRC will need to work together.

“I am incredibly lucky and honored to serve as a commissioner,” Aguilera said.

O’Connell told NM Political Report that one thing exciting about the future of utilities is the transition to clean energy sources in an effort to address the climate crisis.

He said that advances in technology have made things possible to help that transition.

At the same time, O’Connell said climate change is putting new strains on the electrical grid.

That perspective is part of what O’Connell brings to the regulatory body.

The next few years will not be easy for the new commissioners, and O’Connell acknowledges that there’s a lot of work ahead of them.

That includes developing and implementing policies as the grid evolves. One of the efforts that is already underway that O’Connell highlighted is community solar. 

O’Connell said it is an exciting time and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to serve New Mexico.

While Aguilera worked most recently at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington D.C., he was raised in New Mexico and graduated from New Mexico State University.

At FERC, Aguilera focused on western U.S. energy markets.

Aguilera described the position on the PRC as a dream job for him.

“The work is challenging, dynamic and fascinating,” he told NM Political Report during a phone interview. 

Aguilera said he has focused his career on public service and energy regulations.

“I saw the opportunity to serve my home state by doing something that I love,” he said.