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Powering up clean energy

This is a photo of the Public Service Company of New Mexico Los Lunas Solar Energy Center. (Courtesy of PNM)

This is a photo of the Public Service Company of New Mexico Los Lunas Solar Energy Center. (Courtesy of PNM)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new national consumer survey shows most heads of household are willing to pay extra for utilities to invest in renewable energy.

More than 60 percent of 1,000 people who were surveyed nationwide in August and September said they would support paying up to $15 more on their monthly bills for utilities to deploy alternative energy, including solar, wind, geothermal and biomass generation.

The study, conducted by Market Strategies International for the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, suggests utilities may have significant leeway to invest in clean energy across the country without facing adverse reactions from customers, said SGCC Assistant Director K.C. Boyce.

“It shows a lot of people are interested in cleaner generation being on the grid,” Boyce told the Journal. “There are some places in the country where renewables are now cost-competitive with traditional sources of generation and some areas where they are not. But this shows that there is potential – even in less cost-competitive areas – for utilities to still find price points to put renewables on the grid without losing customer support.”

Still, support levels for clean energy may vary among individual markets.

In New Mexico, for example, although most consumers do seem to support renewable additions to the grid, they appear more sensitive when asked to pay more for it, according to a poll in August of Public Service Company of New Mexico customers.

map templateThat survey, conducted for PNM by an independent third party, found that 74 percent of respondents said that developing renewable energy was important or extremely important to them, said PNM spokeswoman Susan Sponar.

“But when it comes to paying more for renewable energy, 43 percent told us they were unwilling to pay more, and 29 percent told us they would pay more,” Sponar said in an email to the Journal.

The SGCC is a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that monitors consumer attitudes regarding development of a “smart grid.” That refers to public and private efforts to modernize the grid by adding diverse sources of generation while incorporating new technologies to both increase energy efficiency and improve the balance of supply and demand.

The group conducts annual consumer surveys to better inform utilities, businesses and consumer-advocacy groups about evolving consumer attitudes.

“There’s a lot of hypothesizing in the industry about what consumers think, so we strive to fill that information gap with concrete data,” Boyce said.

Past surveys have shown support for clean energy, but this is the first time the poll specifically asked how much extra consumers are willing to pay.

When asked if they would support a “bill increase to expand utility’s clean energy sources – solar, wind, geothermal, biomass,” more than 60 percent of respondents said they would support a monthly price hike of $2, $5 or $15.

For solar energy in particular, more than 60 percent also said they would pay $2 or $5 more per month. That dropped to 56 percent, however, when respondents were asked to pay a $15 hike.

Boyce said the survey results could help utilities as they weigh new investments in renewable energy, especially in states where companies must comply with renewable portfolio standards that obligate companies to add alternative generation to their systems.

“Many utilities are trying to figure out how to build and accommodate more clean generation on the grid, and as the survey shows, it seems there’s a strong desire by consumers for that,” Boyce said.

In fact, consumers appear more willing to pay extra for adding clean energy to the grid than they are to pay for investments in system reliability. According to the survey, support for reliability ranges downward from 58 percent who are willing to pay $2 more on bills to 51 percent who would pay $15 more.

“Our hypothesis is people expect reliability from their utilities, so they’re less willing to pay extra for it,” Boyce said.

PNM’s Sponar acknowledged its survey is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the SGCC poll. Rather than specifically asking how much more consumers would pay in dollars per month as the national survey did, she said, PNM customers were asked about their support for percentage increases on bills.

Of those PNM customers who said they are willing to pay more for renewables, 26 percent said they would pay 1 percent to 5 percent more, 16 percent supported a 6 percent to 10 percent hike on bills, and 12 percent said they would pay more than 10 percent extra.

PNM customers also ranked reliability and affordability higher than clean energy. In the PNM poll, 96 percent of respondents said reliability is important or extremely important to them, and 81 percent said having the lowest electric rates in the West was important or extremely important.

“Overall, the survey shows there is certainly support for renewable energy,” Sponar said. “But our customers want balance, because they’re also concerned about cost, and about reliability.”