COMMENTARY: As we await the conclusion of the El Paso Electric Co. (EPE) rate case hearings — which will largely determine whether or not the utility’s request for a rate increase is fulfilled — it is worthwhile to reflect on an early victory in the case for renewable energy and solar-owning utility customers.
The Public Regulation Commission’s (PRC) decision to reject the original proposal by EPE to unduly discriminate against rooftop solar owners through the creation of a different rate class is a laudable one. EPE customers have good reason to celebrate this tremendous step forward in renewable energy development and simultaneous customer empowerment.
The state of New Mexico receives over 300 days of sunshine each year (second only to Arizona in annual solar potential), yet New Mexico still obtains less than 3 percent of its electricity from the sun. The state’s current Renewable Portfolio Standard — the requirement for renewables by which utilities must abide — mandates that a paltry 4 percent of total electricity generation must come from solar by 2020.
Though many recognize the need to rapidly expand this number in the face of global climate change and local economic stagnation, the surest path toward pollution reduction and solar job growth may seem less clear.
Should we mandate that utilities generate a sizable portion of their power from renewables? Should we provide better financing options for homeowners interested in going solar? Should the state dole out tax credits to incentivize solar installation (keeping in mind that the fossil fuel industry has received generous state and federal tax breaks for decades)? Should cities — which are responsible for nearly 75 percent of all carbon emissions worldwide — resolve to develop and promote solar energy on a municipal level?
Each and every action that further eases the switch to solar plays a critical role in shaping a sustainable energy future for New Mexico. Creative, comprehensive, and pragmatic pro-solar policies and precedent — including those established on a local scale — stand as the primary drivers toward renewable energy development. What may appear a tiny victory is often a veritable step in the right direction.
The right call
This is part of what makes the PRC rejection of EPE’s original proposal to place solar customers in a separate rate class (where those customers could be charged significantly higher rates) a point worth emphasizing and an achievement worth praising.
Though EPE can still seek an additional charge for solar customers by other means, it would require EPE to prove that the cost to connect solar homeowners to the grid outweighs the benefits they provide for the grid — a near impossible task, since data on distributed solar consistently indicates the opposite to be true.
A report released by Environment New Mexico Research and Policy Center this past summer entitled Shining Rewards indicates that solar customers actually provide a net benefit to the grid. Solar homeowners donate to the grid during peak hours when demand is at its highest. This means that utilities do not need to invest in costly infrastructure for peaking plants if energy demand grows.
And of course, the true value of distributed solar extends beyond economic benefits. Not only is solar 20 times less carbon intensive than coal, but solar also avoids the generation of localized pollution (unlike fossil fuels).
Furthermore, the solar industry provides New Mexicans with thousands of local jobs — 1,600, currently — and has the potential to provide many more as the industry grows.
The PRC made the right call in its rejection of EPE’s proposed separate rate class for solar homeowners. If EPE seeks to charge solar customers by other means, let’s hope commissioners consider the real data on distributed solar before they make a decision.
Poremba is a voracious reader, avid climber, and recent Hamilton College grad. She currently works as a campaign organizer for Environment New Mexico, a state-wide environmental advocacy group.