El Paso Electric moves to withdraw solar farm plan

September 15, 2018

El Paso Electric, a utility serving Las Cruces and nearby communities, has asked the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to let the company withdraw its plan to build and operate a solar power farm.

The move comes after company representatives met with opponents of the project, who contend it won’t offer customers the lowest available price for solar energy.

The company has said it wants to start a “community solar program,” similar to one it operates in southwest Texas, that allows customers who can’t afford or don’t want solar equipment installed at their homes to voluntarily sign up to have their power supplemented by the solar farm.

However, at least one clean-energy advocacy group said El Paso Electric’s plan to buy a facility near Las Cruces that would be built by Affordable Solar Installation of Albuquerque is anti-competitive.

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the Santa Fe-Based New Energy Economy, told The New Mexican that utilities should have to compete fairly against independent power producers and should not be allowed to “expand their monopoly and keep the independent power producers out of the marketplace.”

In the request to withdraw the plan, lawyers for El Paso Electric said utility representatives had met with the protesting parties this month in an attempt to obtain agreement for mediation in the case, but “the parties did not agree to mediation.”

While the company’s president and CEO, Mary Kipp, said in a statement on El Paso Electric’s website that she was disheartened the proposal wouldn’t move forward, she indicated the utility would return with a new plan for its solar program.

According to its lawyers, the company believes “it would be constructive to engage commission staff and interested parties in discussions prior to filing any new application.”

A hearing officer recommended the commission allow El Paso Electric to withdraw its request, noting that none of the intervenors or protesting parties opposed the move.

Nanasi noted that the commission in March approved Facebook’s plan to buy solar energy for a facility near Los Lunas at $29.98 per megawatt hour, while El Paso Electric’s proposed solar rate is $78.41 per megawatt hour.

She said utility-owned solar power is more expensive because the more the company charges, the more money it makes for investors — so there is no incentive to make energy cheaper.

She argued that independent power providers can produce cheaper energy because such companies are satisfied with lower executive salaries and smaller profit margins.

In June, New Energy Economy filed a request that two of the five commission members — Chairman Sandy Jones, D-Williamsburg, and Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint — recuse themselves for alleged conflicts of interest. Jones has received at least $13,000 in political donations from Affordable Solar and related companies and individuals, while Lovejoy has received at least $4,500, according to campaign finance reports.

Lovejoy recused herself. Jones did not. Both commissioners were defeated for re-election in the June primary.

In a similar case, New Energy tried to get Jones and Lovejoy to disqualify themselves from ruling on Public Service Company of New Mexico’s proposed renewable energy plan because of their contributions from Affordable Solar. Again, Lovejoy recused herself and Jones didn’t. On Monday, however, the state Supreme Court threw out the case against Jones.

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