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PNM leads electric grid discussion

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured a novel solar electric facility with battery storage in Albuquerque on Thursday and addressed a luncheon crowd of local, tribal and state officials as part of a panel discussion on the future of the nation’s electric grid.

Public Service Company of New Mexico arranged the tour of its Prosperity Energy Storage project in south Albuquerque and organized the panel to facilitate public dialogue about the opportunities and challenges posed by the country’s rapidly transforming electric system. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman and PNM President and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn joined Salazar on the panel, held at the Embassy Suites Hotel Downtown.

Salazar said the U.S. is seeing a “virtual revolution” in the development and deployment of renewable-energy technology, with massive, utility-scale wind and solar projects being built across the country. But utilities, communities and federal and state entities nationwide need to work together to find common ground to fully and effectively modernize the electric grid.

That means working through differences and embracing opportunities rather than focusing on conflicts over things like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean power plan, Salazar said. The plan, which the EPA approved in October, will force states for the first time to lower carbon emissions from power plants.

“There are challenges, but the world is changing on issues, and we can’t afford to keep an antiquated power system that doesn’t keep up with the times,” Salazar said. “We need a 21st-century grid, and we need more dialogues like this to gain a better understanding of all the facts.”

That includes honest appraisal of the costs and challenges of adding things like rooftop solar systems to electric grids, which can create extra burdens for utilities as they strive to reliably maintain power plants despite declining revenue from customers with solar panels. That’s led to conflicts in many states between utilities seeking to recover costs through new fees on solar systems and consumer and clean-energy advocates.

“I have rooftop solar on my house and I believe in it,” Salazar said. “But people need to understand the costs associated with the grid. We need to grapple with that and understand the facts.”

“Dysfunctional regulation” where federal and state agencies seem incapable of working together is also a major problem for enacting policies and allowing projects to move forward, Salazar said.

Bingaman, meanwhile, said public policy needs to move beyond an “all of the above” energy policy to prioritize sustainable energy sources.

“I’ve always has a problem with this ‘all of the above’ strategy,” Bingaman said. “It implies we don’t have a preference. But we do need to put priorities on it, with a top priority emphasis on energy that is both affordable and sustainable.”

Bingaman, who chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before retiring in 2013, also called for factoring in greenhouse-gas costs in energy policy, possibly through a tax on carbon emissions.

“At some stage, we need to bite that bullet,” Bingaman said. “It’s a very contentious issue, but an important one.”

Vincent-Collawn said the development of modern battery storage technology will be the “holy grail” for deploying more solar and wind energy, since storage is essential to manage intermittence when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

“The big impediment now for more renewable generation is the ability to store energy to provide power 24/7,” Vincent-Collawn said. “We need to get that code cracked, because that will have the biggest impact on our industry.”

Following the panel, Salazar joined state officials, PNM executives and others in a tour of PNM’s solar battery storage project near Mesa del Sol – a 500 kilowatt photvoltaic system with backup battery storage.