January 24, 2023

Bill to classify natural gas as renewable dies in first committee

A Republican-sponsored bill attempting to get combined cycle natural gas included in the definition of renewable energy died in its first committee on Tuesday.

The bill’s lead sponsor was Rep. James Townsend of Artesia, a retired executive from a fossil fuel company.

Townsend said that House Bill 96 attempted to fix a problem that is “readily apparent in New Mexico.” That problem, he said, is rolling brownouts and blackouts related to a shortage of electricity.

Other sponsors include Rep. Randall Pettigrew of Lovington, Rep. Candy Spence Ezell of Roswell and Rep. Jimmy Mason of Artesia.

The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted on party lines to table the bill.  

“Natural gas is not a renewable, but it works,” Townsend said in response to questions about the Energy Transition Act, which was not among the laws that would be amended to include combined cycle natural gas. HB 96 would have amended two laws—the Renewable Energy Act and the Rural Electric Cooperative Act.

Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, questioned Townsend about how many big blackouts and brownouts New Mexico has experienced and how many were in Bernalillo County.

“We have not had any big brownout or blackout yet,” Townsend said, however he said that the state’s largest utility has warned of potential power shortages in the future.

His claims were based on concerns that the Public Service Company of New Mexico expressed last year when solar projects in San Juan County fell behind schedule due in part to supply chain challenges. However, PNM has signed short-term contracts that the utility says will prevent shortages this summer. These include contracts for coal and nuclear power.

Nationwide, there has been a trend for conservative state legislators to introduce bills either directly supporting fossil fuels or seeking to limit competition for fossil fuels. The Ohio governor signed a bill this year that does include natural gas as a “green” energy source. The Ohio bill was pushed by a dark-money nonprofit group with ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

While oil and gas companies are seeing record revenues, fossil fuels’ share of the electric generation capacity in the United States has plummeted in recent years. A federal report released this month by the Energy Information Administration projects that more than a quarter of electricity produced in the United States will come from renewable sources in 2024 as new utility-scale photovoltaic and wind projects come online.

The committee debate centered on whether the state can power the grid with renewable energy using technologies that are currently available or whether combined cycle natural gas is needed as a bridge fuel while battery storage technology is further developed.

When the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission approved only renewable sources to replace the San Juan Generating Station, the state required the commission to consider the reliability aspects. The PRC found that PNM could reliably provide power to its customers if the coal-fired power plant was replaced solely by renewable sources. PNM also currently receives power from another coal-fired power plant as well as nuclear, natural gas and renewables including geothermal.

Related: ‘New Mexico is leading the nation’: Renewables set to replace coal-fired San Juan Generating Station

Electric cooperatives like Kit Carson Electric have been leading the way when it comes to renewable energy sources. A partnership between Kit Carson and Picuris Pueblo allowed the tribe to reach 100 percent solar power in 2021. Kit Carson is not a member of the Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which supported the bill.

Townsend further alleged that rural electric cooperatives that receive a large percentage of electricity from renewable sources have higher rates. Information from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, which is a leader in the adoption of renewable energy, shows that its electric rates are lower than many other regional rural electric cooperatives.

At the same time, Farmington Electric Utility System raised its power cost adjustment in 2022, citing the high costs of natural gas. FEUS does not receive any energy from wind or solar, although it does use hydropower. Because it is not regulated by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, FEUS does not have to meet the requirements of the Energy Transition Act. The Renewable Energy Act also exempts municipal-owned utilities from the renewable portfolio standards that require at least half of the electricity provided to customers by public utilities to come from renewable sources by 2030.