This piece was first published as an op-ed column in the Santa Fe New Mexican on February 20, 2017. 

Rooftop solar power offers New Mexicans lower electric bills, cleaner air and a solution to climate change. Why, then, would New Mexico lawmakers try to pass 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, Senate Bill 210 and companion bill House Bill 199, which 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, Public Service Company of New Mexico, is leading the charge, alleging that SB 210/HB 199 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.

EEI leads the attack on rooftop solar

In 2012, the trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute, recognized rooftop solar energy as an existential threat to utilities’ profit model. In response, utilities, led by the Edison Electric Institute, began a campaign to undermine rooftop solar. PNM attempted to tax rooftop solar power but failed 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.

  • Edison Electric Institute 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.
  • Edison Electric Institute is a paying member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, 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.” Edison Electric Institute has admitted to ghostwriting other ALEC attacks on solar energy in the past.

As a current vice chairman of Edison Electric Institute, Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources’ chief executive officer, knows this playbook intimately, and she is 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.

PNM is abusing customers via coal, nuclear-driven rate hikes

The irony of PNM’s ploy is that the utility has abused its own customers 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 PNM’s Vincent-Collawn wants to start protecting New Mexicans from corporate abuse, she should stop attacking solar and instead pick up a mirror.

Posted by David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is the Executive Director of the Energy and Policy Institute.