By Nicholas Gilmore, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Some local governments and climate advocacy groups are pushing a bill that could open up energy control to localities in the state.
On Tuesday, Santa Fe County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution in support of Senate Bill 165, the Local Choice Energy Act, which was introduced in the state Senate last month by Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces. Bernalillo County commissioners also showed support for the bill by unanimously passing a similar resolution in January.
A coalition of grassroots advocacy groups called Public Power New Mexico says the goal of “local choice energy” is to give communities in the state the option to “generate affordable, renewable electricity that creates jobs and invests in local economies.” The coalition comprises environmental, racial and economic justice groups throughout the state such as New Energy Economy, Indigenous Lifeways, Youth United for Climate Action and Earth Care New Mexico, among others.
Presently, the bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Conservation Committee. Similar bills were introduced in 2019 and 2021, although they didn’t get far; the 2021 bill died in the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee after passing the Senate Conservation Committee.
The bill’s supporters say it could drive down electricity prices and give communities more control over where their power comes from. However, both utilities that would face competition as a result of the law and some other environmental advocates fear it could interfere with utilities’ long-term planning efforts they say are crucial to a successful transition to clean energy in the state.
If passed by the Legislature and signed into law, the bill would allow local, county and tribal governments to purchase — or generate — power and price it for customers, effectively ceasing the monopoly on electricity generation currently enjoyed by the state’s electric utility providers.
The coalition’s campaign director, Alysha Shaw, said the law would enact a “simple but very meaningful legal change” that would allow similar democratic, community control over electricity generation that exists for other resources. Shaw said it could result in savings for electricity ratepayers and even accelerate the transition to clean energy.
“This is about energy democracy and allowing our communities to have choice,” Shaw said. “These are local community bodies that are accountable to their citizens. I think we see a lot more people engaged and having impact in local government than we do at the [Public Regulation Commission], especially in its current form.”
The bill provides for some PRC oversight of proposed local choice energy providers, and each provider would be required to comply with renewable energy portfolio standards, which includes zero-carbon resources supplying 100% of all electricity by 2045.
Similar “community choice aggregation” laws letting municipalities buy electricity have been passed in 10 other states.
“This isn’t just a pipe dream,” Paul Gibson, co-founder of the advocacy group Retake Our Democracy, told Santa Fe county commissioners on Tuesday.
Gibson referred to the tiered rate structure that was implemented after the city of Santa Fe purchased the Sangre de Cristo Water Co. from Public Service Company of New Mexico in 1995, which he credited for conserving water in the region while “providing protection for low-income community members.”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing a local choice energy community could do,” Gibson said. “It could take the profit that was going to Wall Street and reinvest it in the county.”
PNM, the state’s largest electric utility provider, opposes the bill.
As an investor-owned utility, PNM stands to gain competition — and lose revenue — if the law is changed to allow local governments to take over a part of the process.
Company representatives said the law, if passed, would “derail” PNM’s process for planning electricity generation, transmission and distribution, calling it a momentum killer for the landmark 2019 Energy Transition Act, which requires investor-owned utilities need to switch to zero-carbon electricity generation by 2045.
“When we do our integrated resource planning, we’re looking decades ahead,” PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said. “How do we realistically make plans if communities can just jump ship at any time?”
Others familiar with the complex workings of the industry have expressed similar fears that such a change to utility policy could threaten to stall progress in the ongoing transition to clean energy throughout the state.
Renewable energy advocacy group Western Resource Advocates has concerns with the bill, spokeswoman Cydney Beadles said, including its potential to slow the state’s existing utility providers’ investment and infrastructure or slow current emissions reductions planning.
“We believe that kind of scale — utility scale — is necessary for serious climate action,” Beadles said, adding that there is a role for local procurement and development of renewable energy.
But Shaw said local choice energy would not be disruptive. It would require years of planning and rule-making, she said.
“This will kick open the door for so many regional producers of clean energy,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game here. We need all strategies to move us forward to where we need to be.”
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, some area union electrical workers expressed concerns that worker safety certifications under the proposed law would be inadequate.
“The training portion of this really needs to be addressed, and you’ve got to have qualified people to do that kind of work,” said Darrell Deaguero, speaking for Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 16.
Commissioner Hank Hughes said he was voting “in favor of the idea of local choice,” with hopes that the Legislature would work out the details in expanding the proposed legislation. County Commissioner Justin Greene offered a direct message to PNM, connecting his support for the legislation with the company’s controversial proposed merger with Connecticut-based energy company Avangrid, which is currently under appeal in the state Supreme Court.
“You are our local choice but you’re choosing to sell yourselves to a global organization,” Greene said. “And so this gives us a way out and a way forward if it doesn’t work out to the benefit of our community.”