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Budget crisis could doom clean-energy proposals

By February 21, 2017April 26th, 2022Legislature, Climate & Energy

By Rebecca Moss | The Santa Fe New Mexican
The 2017 legislative session has seen a renewed vigor in policy aimed at increasing the state’s reliance on renewable energy over oil and gas production, but some say these more liberal bills may not have enough political will or funding to become law, even as Democrats control both the House and Senate.
“Every session, it becomes even more clear the incredible benefits that investing in renewable energy has toward our state and the potential our state has to be a leader in this field,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “At a time when our state is facing a jobs crisis, leadership in both chambers recognize the potential that renewable energy and conservation has to create jobs and spur economic development.”
Many lawmakers said a number of clean-energy bills were the result of widespread public support for alternative energy, like solar and wind power, and increasing fears about climate change. Still, the state’s budget crisis leaves little room to invest in new energy policy, and lawmakers say bills that come at a cost are not likely to pass.
Not all Republicans believe renewable energy is the best way forward for the state. Key environmental committees in the Legislature have equal representation from both parties, which can lead to a stalemate for partisan legislation. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, now in her seventh year in office, also could exercise her veto power.
In 2015, Gov. Martinez vetoed a bill to extend a popular, bipartisan $3 million solar tax credit. She also vetoed a bill that would have allowed production of industrial hemp for research purposes. The environmentally friendly crop relies on relatively little water and has been positioned as a lucrative economic investment for a parched desert state.
An initial gateway for environmental bills is the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The committee has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and a 6-6 tie vote can block a bill from advancing. A House Joint Memorial 5, which would ask the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to temporarily halt fracking in Chaco Canyon, failed in the committee on a party-line vote, despite overwhelming public support for the measure.
On Thursday, Republican members of that committee also blocked House Bill 371, which sought to make it a crime for a water utility to falsify water quality data. Republicans said the bill was too vague. Democrats said that argument was a guise for siding with special interest groups that opposed the measure.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said without the cooperation of Republican colleagues or the governor, it’s hard to make progress on renewable energy and other environmental legislation.
“You have to have an administration that has an understanding of what we are facing with global climate disruption,” Stewart said. She said Gov. Martinez is “beholden to the oil and gas industry,” but “the public in general is more concerned and want us to do more.”
The governor has received more than $2 million from the oil and gas industry since 2010 to fund her gubernatorial campaigns.
A number of bills this session address water conservation and the investment made by the state and its electric utility companies in renewable energy.
Senate Bill 227, introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, would require the state to start developing a proposal to put solar arrays on state buildings. Out of more than 700 state buildings, just a handful have solar power, and Steinborn says the bill would help New Mexico save money on energy costs and add jobs in the solar industry.
“Our state is facing a lot of challenges right now, and it is so essential we maximize our advantages, like renewable energy,” Steinborn said. “It’s just smart economic policy to embrace strong environmental policy.”
SB 41, which would reintroduce a solar tax credit for home and business solar installation, also comes with an economic advantage for the state, its sponsors say. An initial tax credit, which expired in 2015, saw an increase in solar businesses and installations, with close to $200 million invested in the industry between 2008 and 2015.
Another bill supported by Steinborn, SB 226, asks utility companies to assess how much water they use to generate power and how much water pollution results from the process.
SB 248, introduced by Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, would change a section of the Renewable Energy Act, requiring the Public Regulation Commission to create rules requiring electric utilities to participate in local government and school solar projects and accept the energy they generate.
The door for this kind of collaboration was opened by a deal finalized last year between Public Service Company of New Mexico and Facebook.
The social media company is currently building a 30-megawatt, $45 million solar energy-based data center in Los Lunas, which feeds excess power back onto PNM’s grid — and has the potential to increase PNM’s renewable energy base power makeup.
The most aggressive renewable energy proposal unveiled this session is SB 312, introduced by Sen. Stewart. It would require utility companies in the state to increase their renewable energy makeup over the next couple of decades, until the the majority of their power comes from renewable energy. On average, utilities would have to increase their renewable energy production by 3 percent a year.
The goal for large public utilities, including PNM, would be to produce 80 percent of their power through renewable sources by 2040. That target would be slightly lower, 70 percent, for rural electric cooperatives.
Stewart said some lawmakers “don’t even want it to be scheduled” for a hearing. “I am not under any illusion this bill will pass.”
“People have to stand up and start talking about climate change,” she added. “I am going to be ridiculed and criticized, but I have all the science behind me saying we need to do this.”
PNM said it won’t support the bill, despite a provision that allows companies to skirt renewable energy goals if they prove to be too expensive.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, supported a bill during the 2015 session, HB 445, that would have reduced the state’s renewable energy goals, currently set to reach 20 percent by 2020. Scott proposed that the standard remain at 15 percent.
He said bills like Stewart’s are “are incredibly misguided and would drive the cost of utilities in New Mexico significantly higher.”
Scott said misinformation is behind the rise in renewable energy legislation during the current session.
“Hell, sunshine is free. What can be wrong with that [when] it’s free and clean? But the unintended consequences, I don’t think, have been fully explored on the other side of the aisle,” he said.
“It would be my opinion that public policy should encourage the cleanest and most affordable energy generation that are economically attractive for New Mexico consumers,” Scott said.
Currently, he said, “that would be natural gas.”
But much of the state’s fiscal crisis has been tied to low market prices for oil and gas, which the state relies on for roughly a third of its budget.
“We have to grow our way out of this situation,” said Liliana Castillo, a spokeswoman with Conservation Voters New Mexico.
Renewable energy “is an actual opportunity to grow jobs and the economy,” she said. “This is one of the few bright spots.”