April 23, 2017
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Renewable energy losses in state legislature slow down solar installations—and the jobs that come with them

April 12, 2017, 12:00 am

Not a single one of the bills to boost renewable power in New Mexico survived the legislative session, most dying in committee with the budget to blame. The one that did pass was winked out by the governor’s pen. Tax credits, a renewable portfolio standard for the state’s energy producers, solar garden permitting and a bill that would have required utilities to consider renewable energy when looking to increase generation were among the issues that failed to advance. Those most affected by the loss won’t be the big utilities, advocates argue. It’ll be lower-income families and job-seekers.

Environmental advocates saw the biggest loss in Senate Bill 312, which would have required utilities to ramp up renewable energy use each year to reach 80 percent by 2040.

“I think our politicians are not entirely with where the public is,” says Sanders Moore, state director of Environment New Mexico. “Many people would like to see a very bold goal, and 80 percent of our electricity from the major utilities coming from renewables is a bold goal.”

“It’s required to do if we want to have a livable climate and preserve human civilization into the second half of the 20th century—it is literally that serious,” says Tom Solomon, New Mexico’s co-coordinator for 350.org. “But it’s also just a tremendous economic opportunity to New Mexico.”

In 2016, 1,000 to 2,000 people worked in wind power in 2016 in New Mexico, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Solar energy was responsible for 2,929 jobs in New Mexico, according to The Solar Foundation. That represented a 54 percent increase from the previous year, even with growth slowing after losing some state tax credits. Though solar prices drop 10 percent a year—the equivalent of the state’s tax credit— Regina Wheeler, CEO of Positive Energy Solar, says these credits make a huge difference for customers, particularly lower income families. The math is simple, she says: “The cheaper you make solar, the more people can have it.”

Last year, when the residential tax credit program was fully allocated, she noticed a slowdown in sales and had to put off hiring five new employees.

“The residential solar industry will not collapse without solar tax credits, but it doesn’t grow as fast,” says Ben Shelton with Conservation Voters New Mexico. “The industry doesn’t need this. People in New Mexico who need jobs need this.”

A survey of 400 New Mexican voters cited by Conservation Voters New Mexico found they ranked solar, wind and renewable energy as a business they’d like to see more of in the state.

The utility-scale price for wind and solar power has dropped 66 and 85 percent, respectively, since 2008. But because utilities are monopolies, Solomon argues, driving a change to more renewables will require legislation.

“We are literally in a race against time to preserve our future,” he says. “If you just leave it to utilities to do what they think is in their best business interest, it’s not going to happen fast enough.”

That bill will be back in coming years—perhaps after the next gubernatorial election, but before the existing standard runs out in 2020.

The failure to advance tax credits for residential and commercial solar installations, Wheeler says, was “not for lack of support, more for lack of time and budget issues.” That bill made it through the House, but not the Senate, where the battle over the budget delayed anything that would have affected the state’s coffers.

“The big takeaway for me was: oh my God, solar got a lot of bipartisan support, with [New Mexico Oil and Gas Association], PNM and the Association of Builders and Contractors all seeing that it’s good for New Mexico and good for the grid,” Wheeler says. So, those bills may also return.

The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee became the graveyard for much of this legislation. The bills to provide tax credits for residential and commercial solar installations, tax credits for production-scale renewable projects, and to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard all died there. So did bills to encourage solar gardens renters can purchase shares of, to allow property owners to use their mortgages to finance renewable energy systems or water conservation projects, and to require utilities to participate in solar projects developed by smaller entities.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Democrat from Grants, chairs that committee. He says he couldn’t get behind the renewable standard because the environmentalists and industry groups told him they hadn’t collaborated.

“I said, ‘Well, you guys need to get together and discuss some of this stuff,’” he tells SFR. “We can’t ram legislation down one group or another’s throat.”

The tax credits died, he says, “because of our budget situation. We don’t need to be giving any credits.”

Of the idea that these bills would have created jobs, he says, maybe that works in other places—but in his county, two current renewable projects don’t seem to be employing anyone. As for the local coal mine, the power plant and the paper mill, on the other hand: “Those are job creators.”

What he’s heard about the climate, which comes from his father, father-in-law and grandfather, is that these things are cyclical. The science behind it, as he says, is above his pay grade.

“It’s obvious that our climate is changing, but I can’t speak specifically to that,” he says. “I’m just sure glad we’re not in China. Look at their air quality over there.”

The bill that advanced to the governor’s desk would have required proposals for renewable energy to power New Mexico’s 700 state-owned buildings. That shift could reduce utility bills for the state; when the City of Albuquerque ran the numbers on transitioning to 25 percent renewable power, they estimated the city would save $3.6 million a year. Gov. Martinez vetoed that bill April 6.

“Renewables are going to continue to grow in New Mexico just because the potential is here,” Shelton says. “It’s matter of, do we want to just be in the pack or do we want to lead? The opportunity to lead is always there, but we didn’t see it in this legislative session. … Where you really prosper off of this kind of stuff is being out ahead of the pack.”


 

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