PNM representatives pitched the company’s Solar Direct energy deal to both Grant County commissioners and Silver City town councilors Tuesday, and received a wildly different reception at each meeting.

The utility company told town and county leaders that the program could help local governments meet their own goals for green energy at the same time that PNM developed sources of renewable energy required under new state legislation. 

Commissioners — some of whom were skeptical of the plan — heard the proposal during their work session Tuesday morning, while the same pitch to enter into a service agreement with the electric utility was accepted enthusiastically by the Silver City Town Council during their regular meeting on Tuesday evening. Silver City passed a resolution giving Mayor Ken Ladner permission to enter into the agreement.

Bruce Ashburn, community manager for PNM in Silver City, told commissioners and — later in the day — town councilors that the utility company needs to meet stepped-up renewable portfolio standards contained in the Energy Transition Act signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in March.

“Inside that energy bill, the renewable energy requirements for PNM have changed dramatically, and going forward, the ultimate goal is to get to 100 percent carbon-free production by 2040,” Ashburn said. “The only way we’re going to be able to do that is by working with municipalities and entities around New Mexico to help them hit their goals, and I know that — stated or unstated — renewable energy is important to this commission.”

The program that Ashburn presented offered the governments access to a 50-megawatt solar facility in southern Rio Arriba County on a subscription basis, with terms that would mean a 15-year agreement to purchase 450 kilowatts. 

“When this goes live, you would be able to know that 69 percent of the energy used by the county would come from renewable sources,” Ashburn told commissioners. “Additionally, because of those changed renewable goals, Grant County, by 2025, would be at 81 percent renewable usage, and by 2040 you would be at approximately 94 percent renewable usage as far as the electricity used in the county — even if you do absolutely nothing else.” 

Ashburn said that demand for electricity by Grant County’s county-owned buildings and other facilities stands at about 800 kilowatt hours.

“Because the solar [energy] system doesn’t use fuels, you would get a credit between $18,517  and $27,387 back to your bill,” he said. Additionally, there are no operations and maintenance costs like there are with a coal plant, for example, so the county would save an additional $7,126, according to Ashburn. “Let’s say gas fracking were to become illegal or highly regulated — this will give you a hedge against rising fuel costs going forward.” He also told commissioners that PNM estimated they would be completely “out of coal” by 2032. 

Ashburn said that this program would put Grant County “in the position of a national leader” in renewable energy, and emphasized that the county wouldn’t have to provide any capital investment in the project in order to benefit. 

“None of your bills would change at all,” he said, asking the commission to decide on the deal by Thursday and file a notice of intent to buy into the program immediately. “If we go to the Public Regulation Commission with a fully subscribed program, it is easier to get approval — as opposed to going up there with an idea and telling the PRC that we think we can sell this.” 

He added that PNM is scheduled to present the program to the Public Regulation Commission on May 31 — “so we need this agreement now, before the 24th of this month.”

Ashburn set a target date of March 2021 for the start of operations, and answered some tough questions from commissioners, including District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne. Browne appeared skeptical of the numbers PNM was using to calculate future consumption of renewables in Grant County. Ashburn then admitted that, in fact, Grant County’s percentage of renewable energy consumption would remain at roughly 67 percent if it adopted the program. 

“We’re going to have to do our own math,” Browne said. “This may well be the most cost-effective way for us to meet our implicit renewable energy goals — but we don’t know that.”

Browne agreed with District 2 Commissioner Harvey Salas when Salas noted that the deal might discourage the county from developing its own solar facilities. 

“We’re locked in for 15 years, and the benefit for us to install our own system would be reduced,” Browne said.

Browne also said he thought he’d heard of the solar project — and that he didn’t think the county should get involved with a project that was the subject of a lawsuit. 

“Unless there is an amazing coincidence, I would say this is the same facility,” Browne stated. Plaintiffs in a suit against the Affordable Solar project claim that PNM rigged the bidding process.

“Harry, I would say this is not the same 50-megawatt system,” Ashburn said. “This is going to a power-purchasing agreement between PNM and the developer on Indian reservation land. I am reasonably sure that this is not the same.” Ashburn later told the Daily Press that he was 100 percent certain.

“There is way too much uncertainty in this, in my opinion, for Grant County to back it,” Browne said. “I look forward to being corrected, because I would like to go forward with this process.” Commissioners will consider the notice of intent at Thursday’s regular meeting.

The town of Silver City, which already uses electricity from solar panels adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant, didn’t hesitate in saying they would subscribe to the renewables deal. In the town’s case, the project would provide one megawatt of electricity to Silver City-owned facilities.

“They’ll be doing what we’ve already done in using our purchase power agreement,” said Alex Brown, Silver City’s town manager. “As with our [existing] one-megawatt facility, it has really stabilized our cost of electricity while moving forward into renewable energy.” 

Brown explained that the only reason the town’s solar field has been profitable is because the town built the project years ago. 

“Why don’t we do it ourselves?” Brown said. “We jumped on it early. The regs we got were 12 cents per kilowatt hour. It’s almost impossible to get that now.”

The current rates? “Two cents,” Ashburn said.

“I really feel this is a positive step for us to take,” Brown told the council.

Geoffrey Plant may be reached at geoff@scdaily press.com.

 



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