A policy fix can create jobs and expand clean energy in our state

January 29, 2019

Solar energy is on the rise in New Mexico.

From consumer cost savings to reduced carbon emissions, people across the state are recognizing the advantages. Over the past five years, the costs of installing solar have fallen 43 percent — making the option more economical than dirtier power sources like coal and gas. There are now more than 194,000 New Mexico homes powered by sunlight and more than 2,500 solar jobs in our state.

Still, solar accounts for less than 5 percent of our state’s electricity. In spite of the progress to date, we’re not living up to our potential. Our state is credited with having the second highest solar potential in the nation. The challenge is, in a word: access. In New Mexico, many individuals and families are unable to seize the benefits of solar because they’re not able to install solar panels. This could be because they lack roof or yard space, because they rent an apartment or because they live on a shared site like a condominium. In other cases, residents may lack the financial resources to go solar — needing money for a down payment on an installation or needing better credit for a loan.

Here’s the good news. There’s a simple policy fix that can empower nearly all New Mexicans to overcome these obstacles and seize the benefits of clean and affordable energy. It’s called “community solar.” We’re sponsoring a bill in the legislative session that would make this fix in state law. To boost economic growth, address inequality and promote clean air and water, New Mexico’s state government should seize the opportunity.

“Community solar” will empower people in our state to access solar energy — without installing panels on their property. It’s a straightforward idea: Allow New Mexicans to build shared solar energy projects — sometimes called “solar gardens” — where multiple households, businesses and local governments can get their electricity. These solar projects can be community-owned — by cities, counties, Native American governing entities, low-income service organizations — or owned by third-party developers. Our legislation, the “Community Solar Act,” Senate Bill 281 and House Bill 210, would provide customers of the state’s three investor-owned electric public utilities, and customers of electric co-ops that elect to participate, with access to clean solar energy at generally lower costs than charged for power delivered by their utility — by purchasing a subscription to receive a set amount of power from a community solar project for a set period of time.

Community solar will be a game-changer for New Mexico. It will boost employment and strengthen local economic development by creating new energy projects while cutting consumer costs and empowering low- and moderate-income communities to harness the benefits of clean energy. New Mexico’s newly elected leaders — in the state Legislature, governor’s mansion and Public Regulation Commission — must look beyond special interests and give power back to the people. They should recognize that electric utilities can accept energy provided by community solar facilities that save costs to their customers without adversely affecting service reliability.

Rather than spending new public money or launching new governments programs, this approach simply eliminates outdated regulations that prevent New Mexicans from developing solar installations. Community Solar is a way to unleash the power of the market to promote sustainability, efficiency and choice.

It’s time for state leaders to free New Mexicans to harness the power of the sun.

Sen. Liz Stefanics represents Senate District 39 and Rep. Roybal Caballero represents House District 13 in the New Mexico Legislature.

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