But not in Santa Fe.
On Sept. 1, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission signed off on a final order allowing Public Service Company of New Mexico to implement its renewable energy plan for 2010. The plan, which is required under New Mexico’s 2004 Renewable Energy Act, calls for several solar energy projects to expand PNM’s clean energy portfolio.
As a part of the plan, five cities around the state will get large-scale solar facilities. Santa Fe, however, isn’t one of them.
According to PNM spokesman Don Brown, three factors hurt Santa Fe’s chances: the high cost of land, the dearth of treeless parcels big enough to accommodate a utility-scale solar array and the time it takes to do business here.
“Our experience in Santa Fe, whether it be the city or the county, is that it can take a lot longer to get approval for a site than elsewhere,” Brown tells SFR. “We were not willing to risk the uncertainty of an extensive, long permitting process when we have to basically put shovels in the ground as soon as we possibly can.”
Naturally, that kind of statement can rankle local officials.
“I think it’s a cheap shot,” Santa Fe Mayor David Coss tells SFR. “I wish they would have actually talked to us. I would’ve been happy to work with them.”
Santa Fe does “try to protect neighborhoods and the environment, and have a good public process,” Coss adds. “I hope PNM is not objecting to the public process.”
In July 2009, PNM filed its original plan for implementing state renewable energy requirements in 2010. But several environmental and renewable energy groups objected to the plan, in part because of its reliance on wind instead of solar energy. This January, after settlement negotiations, PNM submitted a revised plan to the PRC for approval.
After another long period of negotiations, PRC hearing officer Anthony Medeiros issued his recommended decision this August, recommending the PRC reject PNM’s plan to install 80 megawatts of solar facilities. The new plan, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King says in a press release, “does not appear to benefit the public interest.”
On Aug. 24, attorneys for PNM, environmental groups and the attorney general’s office gave oral arguments for and against the plan and, on Sept. 1, the PRC issued its final order.
That order rejects many aspects of PNM’s solar energy plan, largely because of high costs.
But it also approves putting utility-scale solar facilities in five New Mexico communities: Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Lunas and Deming.
However, information about the locations of those new facilities trickled out before the final order—and somewhat strangely.
At an Aug. 24 public hearing, PRC Chairman David King announced the list of locations to those attending. According to PNM spokeswoman Cathy Garber, when King included Silver City as one of the sites, an audience member—“I believe it was a PNM person,” Garber says—corrected him, saying the facility was actually planned for Deming.
“As far as I was concerned, that kind of made it public information,” Garber says.
Prior to King’s disclosure, it hadn’t been.
Case records refer only to “various sites throughout PNM’s service area.”
In fact, even after King listed the sites publicly, PNM spokesman Don Brown told SFR the list wasn’t public.
“We haven’t announced any sites other than one, in Albuquerque,” Brown told SFR on Aug. 30, the day before the PRC met to approve the final order. “We still have a number of sites we are considering.”
It’s therefore unclear how on Aug. 24 King had information about the locations.
Under New Mexico law, Public Regulation commissioners are barred from private communication—ex parte communication—with parties on undecided cases such as this one.
PNM, Garber says, did not provide those names to King “or any other commissioner. I don’t know where he would have come up with that specific list.”
In an initial conversation after the Aug. 24 meeting, King told SFR he knew the Alamogordo location because he had received calls from the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce. But Mike Espiritu, the president of the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce, says he hasn’t called the PRC about anything except PNM’s pending rate case.
Alamogordo Mayor Ron Griggs did not return a message left on his home number.
SFR subsequently attempted to reach King for clarification on Sept. 3, but he was out of the office and did not return a message left on his cell phone. Instead, Jim Williamson, King’s executive administrator, told SFR that King had received the list of solar sites from PRC Utilities Division Director Roy Stephenson.
Stephenson tells SFR he can’t recall whether he communicated with King about the solar sites before Aug. 24.
“Commissioner King and I could well have discussed it,” Stephenson says. “But I have a pretty good idea of what ex parte communication is,” he adds. “If I had told him that, it was because I assumed it was public knowledge.”
The full list of sites also was made public Sept. 1, when Albuquerque Journal reporter Michael Hartranft published an article listing them. That story attributed the information to PNM spokeswoman Garber.
Garber, however, tells SFR that she “confirmed those names with [Hartranft],” but “I wasn’t the one who provided the list.” Garber claims Hartranft’s information came from King, at the Aug. 24 hearing.
Hartranft, however, tells SFR Garber listed the names to him orally, “about a week ago.”
Now that the list is public, however, PNM is moving forward—and fast. According to the PRC’s final order, the five new solar facilities must be operational by October of next year.
There’s also a budget ceiling of $101.7 million, which lends the project a sense of urgency. While that urgency apparently took Santa Fe out of the running, Brown says that could change when PNM files its 2012 renewables plan.
For the current plan, Brown says PNM did consider one site in Santa Fe County, but it was too small and shaded.
“If somebody in Santa Fe is aware of a piece of land we did not find that is large, flat, affordable and close to the distribution grid, we would look at it,” Brown says.
But for those who got involved in the case to push solar power, the final outcome is disappointing for reasons beyond the location of the new solar facilities.
EverGuard Solar and several other environmental and energy groups joined the case as intervenors last summer, when PNM filed its original 2010 renewable plan. In January, after PNM issued its revised plan, the original intervenors stayed on.
According to Bruce Throne, the attorney for Albuquerque small-scale solar provider EverGuard Solar, his client and many other solar industry representatives participated in the PRC case “for one basic reason: to persuade the PRC to establish some certainty for the industry.”
By certainty, Throne says, he means the kind of concrete pricing scheme the parties had hammered out over the course of settlement negotiations.
“Unfortunately, the PRC’s Final Order, however well-intentioned, does just the opposite for the State’s solar industry and PNM customers that may be interested in participating in those programs,” Throne writes to SFR in an email.