Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

PRC delays community solar energy reserve meant for low-income New Mexicans

Despite New Mexico having the highest number of Hispanic or Latino communities of any state in the U.S., it took over a year for officials to translate transparency documents for the state’s community solar program into Spanish.

That contributed to a recently enacted two-month delay on a requirement that’s supposed to save half of the program’s renewable energy for low-income communities.

What is community solar?

Authorized by the Community Solar Act in 2021, this renewable energy program allows homeowners, renters and businesses to get electricity from the same 45 solar energy farms, transmitted through the grids of major utility companies PNM, SPS and EPE.

New Mexicans can get credits on their utility bills for being part of the program, saving around 30% for at least five years, according to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

That means solar energy supposed to be set aside for New Mexicans with low incomes doesn’t have to be reserved for a couple months later than originally planned.

Lawmakers authorized the community solar program with savings for low-income households in mind.

By law, at least 30% of New Mexicans who choose to opt into community solar have to be low-income residents, meaning they make an annual household income equal to or less than 80% of the area’s median income or are part of a state-facilitated low-income program, like Medicaid or SNAP.

The solar facility operators chosen to help run the program last month all committed to serving even more electricity to those communities, setting aside at least 50% of the energy generated for low-income participants, according to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

Previously, by June 2024, at least 30% of the solar companies’ customer bases had to be low-income New Mexicans. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission last week decided to postpone that mandate until August 1, 2024.

That means if a community solar program gets up and running, delivering electricity to New Mexicans before August 2024, companies aren’t required to save a portion of the energy for low-income communities until the new summer deadline.

The likelihood of that happening depends on if solar companies build their small-scale energy farms before that date. PRC spokesperson Patrick Rodriguez said it generally takes a year or two to construct the facility depending on the project’s complexity.

That means farms could potentially get started up as soon as May 2024.

Why was it pushed back?

Commissioners said companies who will run the community solar facilities and get New Mexicans to be part of the program need more time to understand and communicate how they’re required to be transparent with the public.

A two-page form lays out transparency details, like program costs, electricity rate discounts on utility bills, contract terms and grievance procedures. The PRC approved that form over a year ago and amended it in January 2023, but it didn’t get translated into Spanish until this month.

The companies who need to share that information with interested New Mexicans still don’t have the Spanish version, something important to share with the hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans who speak Spanish.

Hispanic people living below the poverty line

Hispanic communities are more likely than white people to be living below the poverty line, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A special state labor market review found Hispanic or Latino people living in New Mexico had a poverty rate nearly twice that of white communities in 2019.

One in four people in Socorro, San Miguel, Cibola and Grant Counties were below the poverty line in 2020, according to the 2022 state workforce report. U.S. Census data show that those are areas heavily populated by Hispanic or Latino communities, ranging from 40% to over 77%. 

The solar companies won’t get those forms until InClime, the independent party who chose the facility operators, holds workshops to explain the documents. Rodrigez said InClime’s workshops are scheduled for July though invitations haven’t been sent out as of Tuesday.

The PRC commissioners decided the new August 2024 date would give the energy operators trying to enroll New Mexicans into the program a year to do so after the workshops take place next month.

This decision upends some of the rules previous commissioners laid out in March 2022 when figuring out how the community solar program should work. Those regulators were the ones who ordered the form to be available in English and Spanish, as well as Native languages when appropriate.

Rodriguez said there aren’t plans currently to make the transparency form available in any Native languages. But, he said, that has to happen if New Mexicans who want to be part of the program speak those languages.

The former commissioners didn’t include any deadline for when the Spanish translation had to be done.

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