In a fight that was already lopsided, the Goliath could be getting steroids.

At least that’s what Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the nonprofit New Energy Economy, fears is possible with major changes coming for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and the state’s largest electric utility.

Nanasi, whose organization advocates for clean energy and lower utility costs, has been battling Public Service Company of New Mexico for years over its requests for customer rate increases and power source plans.

Her group also has fiercely opposed the state’s Energy Transition Act — a 2019 law that requires New Mexico to fully shift to renewable energy by 2045 — because it includes provisions tied to PNM’s plans to shut down a coal plant.

Nanasi claims New Energy Economy has saved PNM ratepayers $500 million over the past 10 years through legal interventions, and she said the group was “instrumental in a 100 percent renewable replacement” for the San Juan Generating Station, the coal plant near Farmington that stands at the center of her opposition to the energy law.

Her organization has sometimes stood alone in its fight against the electric utility, and she now worries it will face an even bigger foe in coming years, after PNM is acquired by a larger energy company and the Public Regulation Commission undergoes an overhaul.

Voter-approved changes to the regulatory agency, in which members will be appointed by the governor rather than elected, will take effect in 2023.

The utility buyout could come sooner.

Last month, a Connecticut-based sustainable energy company announced plans to buy PNM’s parent company. Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources’ chairwoman, president and CEO, said the $4.3 billion deal with Avangrid will help the utility transition to renewable energy. Avangrid is owned by Spain-based energy giant Iberdrola, the third-largest power company in the world.

For Nanasi, an Avangrid buyout of PNM could mean a drought-stricken state facing severe effects from climate change will see a renewable energy boom, and utility consumers will see lower-cost electricity.

Avangrid is a major wind power company that seeks to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 — a decade sooner than the state’s energy law requires.

“I think that’s going to benefit all of us,” said Ray Sandoval, a spokesman for PNM.

But the buyout also could mean New Mexico will “quadruple down on the company store mentality,” Nanasi argued. PNM, one of the largest contributors to state political races, could grow even deeper pockets, she said.

PNM Resources spent $61,899 on direct political contributions during the 2020 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks political spending. The company also spent $120,000 on lobbying in 2019.

Top contributions included $9,385 to U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who lost her reelection bid to Republican Yvette Herrell in a Southern New Mexico congressional district, and $7,762 to President-elect Joe Biden.

Avangrid and its parent company already have a political presence in the state.

Avangrid donated $2,500 to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in November 2019, and Iberdrola has funded the King Felipe VI Chair in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for more than 15 years.

More concerning to Nanasi is the passage of a constitutional amendment that will replace the five elected public regulation commissioners with three positions appointed by the governor.

Voters passed the measure on a more than 10-point margin in the general election.

Having appointed PRC members will likely “increase political influence, and yeah, that’ll be harder for us,” Nanasi said.

Two commissioners who opposed the PRC overhaul, Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Valerie Espinoza, agreed with Nanasi that having appointed commissioners means less accountability for the public.

“It’s not about qualifications. It’s about a will to serve the people who elected you to represent them,” said Espinoza, whose term expires Dec. 31.

Becenti-Aguilar said deep-pocketed individuals and corporations who want to influence utility regulation could simply donate large sums to gubernatorial candidates.

But supporters of the amendment, such as Commissioner Cynthia Hall, argued appointments will lead to more competent utility regulators who have the technical expertise to do the job without political influence.

Nanasi said the true repercussions of the PRC changes will depend on the next governor.

“This governor has been terrible at holding industry accountable,” she said, referring to Lujan Grisham.

Although environmentalists have praised Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, for being much more eco-friendly than her Republican predecessor, Nanasi said Lujan Grisham has made appointments to the state’s Oil Conservation Division who “have all given industry a pass.”

She said the agency created a proposed methane rule riddled with loopholes that undercuts its intent of lowering emissions.

In the meantime, Nanasi is still fighting the landmark Energy Transition Act even after the state Supreme Court ruled in January the Public Regulation Commission must implement it.

She has referred to the energy law, championed by Lujan Grisham, as a “corporate bailout” for PNM’s investors and has argued it will come at a high price for consumers.

PNM and other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which backed the law, have said it will instead lower ratepayers’ costs.

Nanasi said she hopes for a radically different kind of governor in the future who will herald changes for the average New Mexico resident while being a warrior for the environment.

“Not a mainstream Democrat kind of person,” she said.

(15) comments

Mike Johnson

I have seldom agreed with this woman, but she has this correct. With the PRC becoming just another political appointee haven, for the typical NM cronyism and nepotism that drives so much corruption, and the buyout by a rich and politicly powerful company that does not shy away from buying politicians wherever they operate, the future for NM's ratepayers is very grim, and expensive.

Khal Spencer

It was never clear to me, even if this new behemoth is developing RE, that small companies being gobbled up by huge multinationals is a good thing. The fact that you and Greg agree on this with Mariel is evidence there is a problem here.

Mike Johnson

Thanks Khal, and yes there is. If you look at what happened in California this year, which has rapidly removed always-on capable, switchable fossil fuels and nuclear, and thus their base load power is gone, whenever the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow, they have to scramble to import power (and pay through the nose), as well as have rolling brownouts to handle the problems. PNM had a power advisory this summer, advising people to cut back on A/C, as the smoke from the fires up north and in California, reduced their solar grid to 30% efficient. We are already getting close to having removed our reliable, switchable base load fossil fuels, and from now on it is downhill. Enjoy the coming brownouts. And with a PRC that is appointed political hacks, that will really sink us.

Richard Reinders

Khal you are on point ,the senate is meeting as we speak discussing the big tech companies to eliminate 230 protection, but also that they are the new robber barons and are so large they buy their competition which gives the public less choice, they also stated it is happening in all industries where they are consolidating. The Senate are talking about busting them up like ATT and Standard oil. The Senate needs to look at this issue as well.

Greg Mello

Under Mariel's leadership, New Energy Economy (NEE) became a very intelligent and positive force in New Mexico's energy policy and politics. NEE has often had to stand nearly alone, or in practical terms all alone, against neoliberal (i.e. privatized, investor-oriented, corporate-friendly, non-democratic, neocolonial) energy policies. Congratulations to the New Mexican for writing this story, which got major outlines right, in my opinion. This governor is head and shoulders above the last one on these issues, but that isn't saying much. The Energy Transition Act (ETA) handed most of the state's renewable energy (RE) market to investors, enormously stunting potential careers in New Mexico and preventing the development of real locally-owned energy infrastructures, businesses, coops, and the self-reliant, skilled, democratic social and economic communities that go with them. The ETA will enable "brown" (anti-environmental) growth in Arizona, California, and Nevada while postponing, not accelerating, real energy and climate transformation in New Mexico by its lobbyist-written emphasis on electricity. Overall, including oil and gas policies as mentioned in this article, this Governor's policies are oriented to making climate change worse, not better. These mistakes have been enabled by nonprofits and a political leaders who do not understand that in the absence of policies to actually decrease oil and gas production and use, merely adding more RE does not decrease greenhouse emissions. Investing in community and individual RE, energy efficiency, and conservation costs money, but also creates lasting jobs and skills and a productive ethos. The neoliberal mind, which is centered on money rather than people, conflates "citizens" and "consumers." What is thrown onto the garbage heap in the quest for the cheapest electricity is the rising generation, which needs meaningful careers. We need all hands on deck now to transform our society -- this is not a figure of speech, I mean everybody -- not the cheapest electricity so we can avoid that transformation and go on with business as usual as unchanged as possible. On the topic of the Public Regulatory Commission (PRC), Mariel is quite right again. The massive propaganda mailings made in favor of changing the state's constitution to eliminate this portion of our democracy indicate large corporate dollars at work. New Mexico will be poorer for all this. Thank you Mariel for standing up for a better path. The Los Alamos Study Group is with you.

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Thomas Carlson

We financed our solar panels just like we would buy a car. We didn't have to dip into savings to do it. I'm thinking this arrangement will change with the MLG power grab. They will find some way to make a profit off this.

Karen Herrera

I would like to hear more from this consumer advocate and her organization. There just seems to be something strange about the politics of energy in NM. Shining a bright light on the situation is even more critical now that a larger company with deeper pockets will be steering the future of our energy. Thank you Santa Fe New Mexican for this article.

Thomas Carlson

My PNM bill has been lowered to $8.20 per month as we've installed solar panels on our roof that put out around 120% of our power usage. The rest is fed back into the grid during the daytime so that we can draw from it at night. I hope this new for-profit acquisition doesn't mess this up, but I'm guessing it will.

Richard Reinders

Thomas there is already a movement by power companies not to give you full credit for power that is not consumed by you from your system. Your power just like wind is considered dirty power because it is not consistent. So in other areas of the country they give you 3 cents for a daytime KW from your system and charge you 15 cents for night time KW to compensate for their loss. Home solar is a losing proposition for the power companies. You might look to add a battery system to get that 20% back for night use.

Mona Blaber

The New Mexican might think about restricting commenters from using other people's names to comment. The Energy Transition Act's impact on rates isn't a "he said/she said." The well-established public record (and many articles in this paper) shows it will lower PNM customers' rates by more than $6 when San Juan closes.

Dennis Romero

Mona - would you please point me to an article or report that shows the ratepayers bill will be lowered by $6? Looking at the language of the ETA, bonds will be sold to cover closure costs, and these bonds will be paid off by the ratepayers. From what I've read, and I'll do my best to find the documents for your, the average ratepayer bill will actually go up by close to $10.

Barry Rabkin

I don't care which Power company supplies our State with energy as long as there are never any brownouts or blackouts. No reason for them: and 'saving the planet' is not ever a reason for brownouts or blackouts.

Mike Johnson

Mr. Rabkin, check what has happened in California, as they are ahead of NM in replacing reliable, switchable fossil fuels and nuclear base load power with wind and solar. They have had to import power, at exorbitant rates, and use rolling blackouts to handle the problems when the sun or wind is not capable of supplying all the power needed, which can be often. It almost happened here last summer, when the smoke from all the regional fires reduced solar to 30% efficient and the wind was reduced, and PNM put out an advisor to reduce electric usage. The same is coming here more often soon, along with a PRC full of political hacks.

Richard Reinders

The company taking over PNM is one of the largest in solar and wind which is another word for brown and blackouts, and eliminating elected PRC will allow the new company to charge what the want.

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MT Lee

I'm totally confused. How does a constitutional amendment get on the ballot in New Mexico? What did MLG have to do with it and her taking advantage of ignorant people? Which people ignorant people voting for it? The public or the legislators that voted to put it on the ballot?

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