September 2, 2023

PNM customers speak out against proposed rate increases

Nicole Maestas Olonovich, a resident of Albuquerque’s South Valley, has limited income at her disposal to help her and her one-year-old child. The mother and disabled veteran is concerned that increasing electric utility rates may lead to difficult decisions in the future.

“A 10 percent increase for me would have been almost $40 this month,” she said. “As a disabled veteran and mother, that’s milk, diapers or gas.”

She was one of the Public Service Company of New Mexico customers who spoke out against proposed rate increases on Thursday, citing concerns about how the increases could strain budgets for low-income households.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission hosted a public comment meeting prior to the start of the evidentiary hearing regarding the rate increase.

The evidentiary hearing is when PNM will present arguments for the rate increase and other intervenors will make arguments about what should be included in the rates. It begins on Tuesday and will continue daily through Sept. 22, with the exception of weekends. The evidentiary hearing will be streamed on the commission’s YouTube channel.

How much rates will increase, or if they will increase at all, will be determined by the PRC based on the advice of a hearing examiner. The hearing examiner will oversee the evidentiary hearing and will issue a recommended decision.

The customers say they should not have to pay more for utilities because PNM made bad business decisions.

This accusation is in reference to a decision PNM made years ago to continue relying on the Four Corners Power Plant for electricity. PNM previously asked to recover the investments into pollution controls at the coal-fired power plant during a 2016 rate case. Opponents argued that those investments were imprudent and that PNM should not be able to charge customers for them. The commissioners in 2016 chose to leave that question for future regulators to decide.

“I understand the need for utilities to cover their costs, but not because of a bad business decision,” Destiny Krupnick said.

Krupnick is only 20 years old, but she’s already spent time without a place to live. She said she spent three months homeless this summer because she could not find a place to live that was within her budget.

“It was one of the more stressful periods of my life,” she said.

Krupnick said she went to social service agencies for assistance and that they are all overwhelmed trying to help people like her find housing or services they can afford.

Even though she now has a place to live, she is still struggling financially and is concerned about how increased rates could impact her.

“My financial stability is already precarious, with every dollar carefully allocated towards necessities like food, rent and health care,” she said. “Any additional financial burden, especially higher utilities is a blow that could push me back out onto the streets.”

Customers are further upset that PNM has asked to increase the return on equity, which some of them felt enriches shareholders at the expense of ratepayers.

Xavier Barraza with Los Jardines Institute said, in light of climate change, increased profits from the utility should not be going to the shareholders, but rather back into the grid to create a grid that is “more efficient, more reliable, more safe and less hazardous and well prepared for our future.”

Rayellen Smith, the president of Indivisible Albuquerque, urged the PRC to consider the impacts increased electric rates can have on people with limited financial resources.

Smith herself has limited resources since she is a retired widow who lives on social security and some savings.

“The rate setting process is very complicated for average people,” she said. “Imprudent investments, rate credits and return on equity are not kitchen table topics. Paying my electric bill is a kitchen table topic.”

Elaine Cimino, the director of Common Ground Rising, had a similar message for the PRC.

“This rate increase will impact those who are already facing financial hardships. And making difficult choices between essentials like food and medicine,” she said.

Cimino explained that higher costs for electricity leaves people with less discretionary income to spend on necessities like food and healthcare. She said rate increases can lead to greater economic inequality and place additional strain on social services and nonprofit organizations that work to assist low-income individuals and families.

She said the PRC must consider the affordability and fairness of any rate increases and explore options to mitigate the impacts of rate increases on low-income individuals.

Rachel Wiley, an Albuquerque resident, said her elderly mother who lives on a fixed income has kept her air conditioning setting at 78 degrees this summer and covers outlets in rooms that she does not frequently use so that the air conditioning only cools areas she is using.

At the same time, Wiley said her mother’s bill went from $100 in July to $271 in August. Though she recognized the heat wave may have contributed to that, she said a rate increase would force her mother to make difficult decisions, such as whether to buy groceries or run her air conditioner.

Cimino and several others who spoke during the meeting said PNM has made choices in the past such as continuing the use of the Four Corners Power Plant that has made it more expensive to operate.

She said she does not support allowing PNM to recover investments into the coal-fired power plant from ratepayers.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie is a Diné, or Navajo, farmer who lives outside of the PNM service territory but says the Four Corners Power Plant directly impacts his livelihood through discharges of water that eventually reach the San Juan River. He said water from the Four Corners Power Plant could impact the irrigation water farmers in the Shiprock area rely upon.

Yazzie criticized the use of coal-fired power plants.

“I finally speak on behalf of our grandchildren, my grandchildren as well as your grandchildren. All grandchildren,” he said. “Is it not obvious? Is it not clear the kind of future that we are leaving them? They will suffer the brunt of our rapid and inconsiderate exploitation of the earth that we see around the world today. Do we not care enough for the welfare of the grandchildren to begin taking substantive measures to cut back on the damage that is being done to the earth?”