We are one year into the Energy Transition Act, and utilities across the state are now charting their courses towards carbon-free generation. The goal is to meet demand for electricity with 100 percent “zero-carbon” sources by 2045 for investor-owned utilities and 2050 for electric cooperatives. Renewable energy is now cost-competitive with other sources of power generation like coal and nuclear; and investments in renewable energy projects have steadily grown in New Mexico, which is rich in both wind and sun. But renewables don’t produce energy as reliably as coal, and utilities say that poses a big problem for delivering electricity to customers when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining. So, they’ve turned to natural gas to supplement power needs while bringing more renewables online, touting it as a crucial stepping stone in the transition to renewables.
BLOOMFIELD, NM — Leaning against the wall in a corner of Geneva Griego’s white-paneled living room is a bag of coal. Like many people who live in the Farmington area —part of the coal-rich Four Corners region where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet — her family relies on a mixture of coal and wood to heat their home. A few feet away, in the kitchen, her 19-year-old daughter Sharon tosses a scoop into the wood stove and closes the small glass door. For almost 50 years, coal has fueled not only homes in this region but also much of its economy. And the Griego family’s fortunes have been intertwined with coal almost from the beginning.
The New Mexico Supreme Court put to rest some of the on-going drama about Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) plans for closing down the San Juan Generating Station. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) must apply the Energy Transition Act (ETA) to PNM’s case for shuttering the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, granting a writ of mandamus requested by a group of stakeholders, including Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, Senator Jacob Candelaria, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and others. A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to a subordinate government body or lower court to fulfill official duties required by law or correct an abuse of discretion. In December 2019, Lujan Grisham and others asked the court to force the PRC to apply the ETA to the San Juan Generating Station case. The decision comes after six months of back-and-forth between the PRC and investor-owned PNM on the applicability of the ETA on PNM’s plans for phasing out its coal-based energy generation.
Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled legislation that would dramatically alter the structure of the state’s Public Regulation Commission, shifting nearly every division currently under its authority to a department within the governor’s administration. Although the PRC is a state commission, it is an entity not under the control of the state’s governor. Legislation proposed by state Reps. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, and Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, would change that, and comes amid frustration from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some lawmakers over disagreement with the PRC on whether the Energy Transition Act applies to plans from the state’s largest utility to abandon and recover investments into a coal-fired power plant near Farmington. The energy act, signed into law by the governor in 2019, would allow Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover investment costs sunk into the San Juan Generating Station and requires the state to shift to zero-carbon electricity production by 2045.
When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act into law in March, she called the law “transformational” and “a really big deal.”
“The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico. This legislation is a promise to future generations of New Mexicans, who will benefit from both a cleaner environment and a more robust energy economy with exciting career and job opportunities,” she said at the time in a statement. But the first attempt to implement the new law hasn’t been smooth. The investor-owned utility PNM announced in 2017 that it planned to close the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired plant located outside Farmington. But PNM didn’t formally submit to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) its consolidated application for abandonment, securitization and replacement power for the power plant until July 2019, weeks after the Energy Transition Act had been signed into law.
The New Mexico Supreme Court denied a request to determine the constitutionality of the Energy Transition Act (ETA) on Tuesday. The decision was released without an opinion. In August, the advocacy nonprofit New Energy Economy (NEE) filed a writ of mandamus asking the Court to rule on whether portions of the ETA are unconstitutional. The writ alleges that wording in the ETA removes the Public Regulation Commission’s (PRC) regulatory oversight of Public Service of New Mexico (PNM) and proposed rate increases. New Energy Economy’s executive director, Mariel Nanasi, announced the court decision at a panel discussion in Santa Fe Tuesday evening.
“We believe the ETA is unconstitutional, especially in regards to its eviscerating the regulatory authority [of the PRC],” Nanasi said.
Dysfunction and a lack of expertise within the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) threaten to undermine the state’s ambitious plan to flip the switch from coal to reenewable power.
The Energy Transition Act — the centerpiece of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s agenda to rein in greenhouse gas emissions — phases out coal, turbocharges solar and wind development, and provides funding to retrain displaced coal plant and mine workers. It has been hailed as one of the strongest climate measures in the country.
But six months after Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law, its success appears jeopardized by the very regulatory body charged with overseeing its implementation.
The powerful commission must vet every aspect of the plan: the closure of the San Juan Generating Station coal plant; the complex financing to pay for decommissioning and worker assistance; and every new energy project that will provide the replacement power. But when the first proposals came before the PRC in July, the commission chose to ignore the new law, leaving the state’s energy transition in limbo. The unusual move has sparked a political furor, pitting the PRC against the governor and Legislature and leading to calls for impeachment of three of the commissioners as well as a proposal by the governor to convert the PRC from an elected body to an appointed one.
The law’s supporters say the commission’s handling of the plan reflects deep dysfunction that could slow the state’s renewables ramp-up and jeopardize aid for displaced workers. Lujan Grisham says she finds the PRC’s actions “baffling” and suspects that long-standing tensions between the commission and Public Service Co.
A group of organizations filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court this week that alleges the Energy Transition Act is a deregulation law for PNM, and are challenging provisions in the law as unconstitutional. The suit from New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe-based advocacy nonprofit, and six other groups claims the ETA removes some of the authority given to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) to regulate the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) and its proposed rate increases associated with its fossil fuel assets. PNM is an investor-owned utility that operates as a monopoly in parts of New Mexico. As a utility, the company has an obligation to serve its customers—the ratepayers—in the most efficient manner and at the lowest possible cost. But as a publicly-traded company, PNM also has an obligation to its shareholders to generate profit.
Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a sweeping bill that bumps the state’s use of renewable energy. The new law sets a standard to produce 50 percent of the state’s energy through renewable sources in the next ten years and 80 percent within the next 20 years. Beyond the push for more renewable energy, the law also allows the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) to issue bonds at lower interest rates to pay off debts associated with a coal powered plant in the northwest corner of the state. It also establishes a $20 million fund to help workers and communities that will be affected by the shutdown of the San Juan Generating Station. In the Roundhouse rotunda, where Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 489, lawmakers and advocates said the governor was relentless in getting the bill passed through the Legislature with as few changes as possible.
The Legislature has moved to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk a controversial bill designed to dramatically increase the amount of renewable energy used to produce electricity in New Mexico while also helping the Public Service Company of New Mexico recoup its investments in the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. Following a three-hour debate Tuesday, the House passed Senate Bill 489 by a margin of 43-22. It was a mostly party-line vote, with almost all Democrats in favor of the bill and almost all Republicans voting against it. The measure goes now to Lujan Grisham, who has enthusiastically supported it. How PNM’s electrical rates will be affected was a major point of contention during debates over the bill in the Legislature.