Editorial: PNM, PRC need a real emergency plan to avert looming blackouts - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: PNM, PRC need a real emergency plan to avert looming blackouts

PNM, the state’s largest utility company, announced last week it won’t have enough power in July and August to meet peak consumer demands and is warning customers they may face rolling blackouts this summer. The utility also warned there could be rolling blackouts in the summer of 2023 because of power generation shortfalls.

Yes, many things outside of PNM’s and the state Public Regulation Commission’s control have contributed to the looming crisis. That includes global supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic that mean utilities can’t get access to the equipment and materials needed to maintain and repair their electric systems. Extreme weather events caused by climate change — from drought and summer heat throughout the western United States to rampant wildfires impacting grids — are also stressing systems across the West. Add to that the effort by all states to rapidly transform their grids to renewable energy, shutting down coal and natural gas plants, and you’ve got a perfect storm facing the entire western region of the United States.

Those things together create immense challenges everywhere. But missteps in New Mexico have greatly aggravated the problems. Consider:

• All utilities in the state are striving to convert their grids to renewables under lawmakers’ and the governor’s Energy Transition Act, which mandates zero carbon resources by 2045. Some of those efforts may be moving too fast.

• As part of the 2020 plan to shut down the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and convert to renewables, PNM proposed to build a 280-megawatt “peaking” natural gas plant, which could rapidly ramp up and down as needed to meet peak demands. But the PRC — at the behest of environmental groups — turned it down.

• To replace San Juan, the PRC approved construction in late 2020 of four new solar facilities with backup battery generation and expected PNM to be able to rely on wholesale markets to make up any deficit in power-supply needs during peak summer demand. But when pandemic-induced supply-chain problems exploded in 2021, solar developers said construction plans were delayed too much to get the renewable facilities online for summer 2022 when San Juan shuts down. And now, with the collapse of wholesale markets, PNM has no place to turn to meet peak summer demand unless San Juan operations are extended until the fall.

• In addition, while crisis looms for this summer, PNM customers could face rolling blackouts in summer 2023 because power that PNM receives through leases in the aging Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona will expire starting next January. The PRC has yet to approve replacement resources for that lost nuclear power, making it impossible to get replacements online in time for summer 2023.

Given the crisis hanging over consumers, PNM and the PRC are diving in to a blame game. PNM says commissioners dragging their feet on replacement resources has placed the utility in a bind. But commissioners say PNM shares responsibility by not submitting replacement proposals in a timely manner for the PRC to fully evaluate and approve.

Taken all together, the state may be facing an epic fail in the transition to a renewable grid.

And the one solution both PNM and the PRC appear to agree on is to educate and urge customers to conserve energy during peak periods. One way to do that: turn up the thermostat and sweat it out.

New Mexicans living in PNM’s service territory should be concerned. So should those living in the state’s electric cooperatives, which are also facing critical equipment shortages. Jemez Mountain Electric Cooperative, the largest co-op in the state, told the PRC shortages of transformers and materials are affecting its ability to replace old lines and construct new ones, making it difficult to maintain electric service for all of its 22,000 member/owners in Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Santa Fe, McKinley and San Juan counties.

In a better-late-than-never move, PRC commissioners have agreed to immediately compile a lengthy questionnaire for all local utilities to fully assess the problems and consider emergency measures to avoid potential power shortages. That’s a good idea. We need to know the extent of the problem and what to expect.

Commissioners also said they may reach out to regulators and utilities in neighboring states to potentially share electricity in an emergency, and to lend needed equipment for grid maintenance and repairs to keep power flowing. That’s also worth exploring. New Mexico isn’t alone in this problem, and the Texas deep freeze of 2021 proved the folly of trying to be an island when it comes to the electric grid.

In the short term, it is critical to extend San Juan operations for another four months, delaying the shutdown of the coal plant until late September to resolve power shortages this summer. That needs to occur, but it also needs PRC approval. Extending San Juan operations isn’t a long-term solution as we make the much-needed transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but it will buy time through next summer and until four new solar facilities are all fully online by spring 2023.

But even they won’t be enough to cover the power lost due to ending the leases with the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station next January.

So what are the short- and long-term power plans as we transition to renewable energy?

New Mexicans deserve answers from PNM and the PRC well beyond turning power off to consumers.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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