The state’s Energy Transition Act and a constitutional amendment to restructure the Public Regulation Commission top the list of issues facing candidates seeking two open PRC seats in the Nov. 3 elections.
Incumbent commissioner Cynthia Hall is seeking reelection to District 1 in central New Mexico against Republican challenger Janice Arnold-Jones. And, in northern New Mexico, two PRC newcomers – Democrat Joseph Maestas and Libertarian Party candidate Chris Luchini – are competing in District 3 to replace Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who completes her second term in January.
The two races take place amid a turbulent period at the PRC.
A proposed constitutional amendment is on the Nov. 3 ballot to turn the PRC into a three-member commission appointed by the governor. It’s currently an elected body with five commissioners representing distinct regions around the state.
If approved by voters, term periods for the two winners in this year’s races would be truncated from four to two years ending in 2022, when the governor would replace all five commissioners with appointed ones to serve six years starting in 2023.
The Legislature approved the proposed amendment in 2019, supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, to “depoliticize” the PRC, which has clashed repeatedly with Lujan Grisham and legislators over various issues, in particular implementation of the Energy Transition Act. That law requires public utilities to convert the electric grid to 100% renewable energy and carbon-free generation by 2045. The PRC must oversee the transition, including the shutdown of fossil fuel facilities, choosing energy resources to replace them, and balancing consumer and utility interests when setting rates.
All four candidates in the PRC races say the ETA’s implementation is central to the elections.
For Hall, 68, pursuing clean energy is the principal reason she’s seeking reelection.
“My district elected me in my first term with a strong mandate to support clean, renewable energy and promote environmental values in our decision making,” Hall said. “I’m running to continue that work.”
The energy transition involves complex issues, such as assuring grid reliability and electric affordability as renewables replace fossil fuels and new technologies like battery storage are added. Commissioners need extensive knowledge of energy issues, utility economics and regulatory processes to manage those things, Hall said.
A physiologist and lawyer, Hall considers utility regulation her forte. She served in the PRC’s legal division for years before becoming commissioner in 2017.
“We face complex decisions going forward that require expertise, which I had going into the job and have further developed as a commissioner,” Hall said. “My opponent has no experience in utility regulation. She’s a newcomer.”
Arnold-Jones, 68, is a businesswoman with a bachelor’s degree in communications who served four terms in the state House of Representatives from 2003-2011. Now retired, she previously owned a contracting business that supplied services to Sandia National Laboratories. She also co-managed two nuclear energy-related companies.
Arnold-Jones said her legislative experience and business background have prepared her for the challenges of balancing utility and ratepayer interests. However, she emphasizes a cautious approach on energy transition to ensure reliability and affordability.
“My top goal is that electricity be delivered reliably when New Mexicans turn the switch on,” Arnold-Jones said. “The PRC is supposed to ensure that, and there should be no excuse for that standard not to be met.”
She advocates a “holistic” approach to provide the 24/7 backup power needed to offset the intermittency of solar and wind, since long-term battery storage needs more development, and wind and solar require a lot more transmission. Other non-carbon generation should be considered, Arnold-Jones said, such as carbon capture for coal or natural gas, or possibly small modular reactors for nuclear generation.
In District 3, both Maestas and Luchini said their backgrounds qualify them to regulate the transition.
Maestas, 59, is a civil engineer who worked 30 years for federal agencies. He also served 14 years in local government as a city councilor in Española and Santa Fe, and as Española mayor from 2006-2010.
Maestas said the energy law mandates a carbon-free future in New Mexico, but the PRC must set the guidelines to achieve it. Apart from replacing fossil fuels, the electric grid must be modernized with more transmission infrastructure. “We have an antiquated grid that we need to improve and expand to accommodate a mix of renewable energies,” Maestas said. “I have the qualifications, experience and leadership needed to hit the ground running.”
Luchini, 56, is Libertarian Party chairman, but he’s never held public office. A physicist who worked for NASA and briefly for Los Alamos National Laboratory, Luchini is a private business owner involved in research and development of new energy technologies, including the capture of heat from depleted gas wells for geothermal generation.
Like Maestas, Luchini says transmission development and grid modernization is critical to the energy transition. But the hardest part of achieving carbon-free generation will come when the grid surpasses 50% renewables, Luchini said. “When we reach 60% to 70%, we’ll absolutely need new storage technologies that haven’t yet matured and are still horribly expensive, and we need to be prepared,” Luchini told the Journal. “I have extensive business experience in the green energy sector – I understand the economics – and I have the scientific background. I can be very effective in these areas.”
Arnold-Jones, Maestas and Luchini all oppose turning the PRC into a governor-appointed commission to protect the right of voters to elect their representatives. Hall has supported the amendment, but says the Legislature must enact rules to guard against political influence from lobbyists and special interests in the nominating process.