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Utilities Q & A

What are rolling blackouts?

“Rolling,” or rotating, blackouts are when utilities cut electricity for short periods of time to different blocks of customers to conserve energy when demand exceeds available electricity. California’s three main utilities imposed brief rolling outages in mid-August because they didn’t have enough electric generation at certain times as consumers cranked up their air conditioners in the heat wave.

How likely is it New Mexico could face rolling blackouts as it transitions to renewables?

PNM says rolling blackouts in New Mexico are unlikely as it is carefully planning to build reliability and resiliency into its grid as it transitions to renewable energy, including back-up battery storage and other resources to keep the power flowing in all instances. No electric grid can be 100% insulated from extreme weather events or other catastrophes like wildfires, but they work to have enough resources available at all times to meet demand in any given situation to limit such occurrences to once in 10 years. Poor utility and regulatory planning in California left utilities there unprepared for the historic heat wave that hit in mid-August.

What’s the process to determine the number of solar and wind farms needed for an all-renewable grid?
The Energy Transition Act requires PNM and other utilities to convert their grids to 50% renewables by 2030, 80% by 2040 and 100% carbon-free generation by 2045. That means about one-fifth of their grids could still include non-renewable resources like nuclear energy or possibly carbon-capture technology for gas plants. Resource selection is based on: the amount of new electricity a utility needs to meet current and projected demand as the consumer base grows and as fossil fuels come offline, the cost and reliability of proposed replacement systems, and environmental benefits. Utilities propose new resources to the state Public Regulation Commission, which must approve, reject or modify the proposals following public hearings and based on the balancing of ratepayer and utility interests.

What part will batteries play in a renewable and carbon-free grid?
Until recently, utilities have relied primarily on “base load” power such as coal and nuclear generation that are always on and always available to provide electricity 24/7. Natural gas plants can also provide around-the-clock, base-load power, but generally offer back-up generation as needed. Under the new energy law, base-load resources and natural gas-based generation will be slowly replaced by intermittent solar and wind energy, which only produce when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. To keep electricity flowing during renewable off hours, PNM and other utilities will rely heavily on batteries and on other emerging storage technologies combined with alternative, carbon-free generation.

Is storage technology available now to back-up renewal intermittency?
Utilities are now deploying batteries nationally and in New Mexico, including plans by El Paso Electric and PNM to install such systems for the first time over the next two years. The technology is rapidly evolving, with more efficient and longer-duration battery systems emerging and prices dropping as the technology gets widely deployed and as economies of scale kick in. Other storage systems are also emerging, such as pumping water into reservoirs when cheap electricity is available or injecting compressed air into underground cavities to later release the water for hydro generation or unleash the air to run turbines. Utilities may also consider carbon-capture technology, or alternative fuels like hydrogen, to continue operating combustion turbines in a carbon-free way.

Where will our renewable energy come from?
Mostly from solar and wind facilities, because New Mexico’s searing sunshine and gusty winds offer excellent resources for abundant renewable generation. The state may have some limited geothermal potential, and small pockets where hydro-generation is possible, but local utilities aren’t aggressively exploring those options here. Hydro electricity, however, is imported from other states like Colorado, where wholesale supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission is tapping hydro generation for sale to New Mexico-based rural electric cooperatives.

Is all the renewable energy currently produced in New Mexico used by the state grid?
Most of New Mexico’s wind generation, and much of its solar power, is now exported to western markets. Those energy exports will grow exponentially as wind and solar developers expand facilities here and as new, large transmission projects come online in the next few years. Local consumption will grow significantly as well as New Mexico’s public utilities and rural electric cooperatives work to meet the state’s renewable portfolio standard of 50% renewables by 2030 and 80% by 2040.

How might¬†PNM Resources’ recently-announced merger with Avangrid help PNM achieve its renewable and carbon-free goals?

Avangrid is the nation’s third-largest wind developer with major financial backing from the Spanish company Iberdrola, S.A., a global firm that owns 81.5% of Avangrid’s publicly-traded shares. That financial might can significantly boost PNM’s investment in renewables, while bringing critical experience to the table to develop wind energy and related infrastructure. Avangrid wants to accelerate its own clean energy deployment in New Mexico and the Southwest, reinforcing PNM’s plans to exit fossil fuels. After announcing the merger, for example, PNM said it’s seeking to unload its 13% share in the coal-fired Four Corners Generating Station by December 2024, seven years ahead of schedule. PNM said it began exploring an early exit in 2018, but its merger agreement with Avangrid explicitly commits PNM to depart from the plant by year-end 2024.

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