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PNM is trying to sabotage rooftop solar

Rooftop solar power offers New Mexicans lower electric bills, cleaner air, and a solution to climate change. Solar jobs grew by over 50 percent in New Mexico in the last year alone. Why, then, would New Mexico lawmakers propose legislation to undermine the rooftop solar industry’s growth just as it begins to take off?

State Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, have submitted legislation, SB 210 and companion bill HB 199, that would saddle rooftop solar companies with new bureaucratic hurdles that would make it harder and more expensive for them to sell solar panels to New Mexicans.

The proposed legislation is the latest chapter in a national plot, led by America’s monopoly electric utilities, to kill rooftop solar. In New Mexico, the state’s largest monopoly utility, PNM, is leading the charge, alleging that SB 210/HB199 is necessary to protect customers from solar companies out to swindle them.

Were actual abuses from solar companies to arise, other existing laws already protect consumers. So why the new legislation? That’s because the threat that rooftop solar companies pose is not to customers, but to monopoly utilities like PNM.

In 2012, the trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), recognized rooftop solar energy as an existential threat to utilities’ profit model. In response, utilities, led by EEI, began a campaign to undermine rooftop solar, first by attacking laws that allow people to sell their solar production back to the grid. Next utilities tried to change electric rates in ways that would effectively tax rooftop solar power; PNM tried that approach, ultimately failing in 2015.

Now utilities are trying to tar and feather solar companies with a myth of wide-scale customer abuse. Their lack of facts has not stopped them from fear-mongering around the country. For example:

• EEI funded – and was caught manipulating the contents of – a report called “Solar Power for your Home: A Consumer’s Guide,” some of which seemed designed to dissuade consumers from going solar.

• EEI is a paying member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate bill mill that allows fossil fuel companies and utilities to ghostwrite bills for state legislators. ALEC offered a presentation in 2015 called “Consumer Protection Concerns Surround Rooftop Solar Model Policy.” EEI has admitted to ghostwriting other ALEC attacks on solar energy in the past.

As a current vice president of EEI, Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM’s CEO, knows this playbook intimately, and she is now deploying it in New Mexico. PNM’s lobbyists presented a slide deck to the Legislature in December designed to drum up fears about solar companies. It featured no evidence of abuse.

The irony of PNM’s ploy is that the utility has abused its own customers – who do not have the option of finding another utility the way solar customers can shop around – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

The monopoly has increased electric rates by more than 50 percent since 2008, and in December PNM filed for yet another rate increase, asking to raise bills by another 14 percent. The rate hikes have funded a 15-year contract extension in coal power, even as nearly every other utility is moving away from coal. Another utility invested in the same coal plant sold its shares and saved its ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars by instead investing in solar energy and gas.

PNM also invested in more nuclear power without having “reasonably examined alternative courses of action,” according to a hearing examiner. In both cases, PNM admitted when pressed that it had not performed any economic modeling or financial analysis to justify the investment as being the lowest-cost way to serve the public – hardly a role model of protecting its customers.

New Mexicans and their legislators should not be fooled by PNM’s latest con. If CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn wants to start protecting New Mexicans from corporate abuse, she should stop attacking solar and instead pick up a mirror.