Nearly 50 Public Service Company of New Mexico customers told state regulators Monday that the utility should be investing more in renewable energy instead of asking for more money to pay for decadesold coal-burning plants and out-of-state nuclear power.

The broadside against PNM came as the Public Regulation Commission began weeks of hearings on the power company’s proposed 9 percent rate increase.

Only two of the five members of the commission — Valerie Espinoza of Santa Fe and Cynthia Hall of Albuquerque — attended the three-hour hearing.

PNM spokesman Dan Ware said the company appreciated the passion of the customers. “We want the same, clean, green future,” he said. “We just differ with some folks on how to get there.”

PNM this year announced plans to begin divesting its stake in coal power in 2022 and to retire all coal assets by 2031.

In its request before the Public Regulation Commission, PNM is asking for $62.3 million from its customers to compensate for capital investment costs, including maintenance at two aging coal plants in northwestern New Mexico and the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona. The proposed rate hike comes a year after the commission approved a $65.7 million rate increase for the utility.

Hilario Romero, a former state historian, was among those who spoke at the Public Regulation Commission hearing Monday, saying PNM customers are already having trouble paying their bills.

“There are cheaper, cleaner and safer ways to create electricity,” Romero said.

Robert Bernstein, a Santa Fe physician, said pollution from coal burning can cause lung disease, cardiovascular disease and neurological problems. “If the money was going to renewable energy, I’d be willing to pay extra,” he said.

Retired Santa Fe dentist Leslie LaKindsaid PNM, by producing pollution from coal burning, has made money hurting people. “Like the cigarette industry, PNM has stood in the way of progress,” she said.

Several speakers spoke about a general mistrust of PNM. Glenn Silber, a retired ABC news producer, said the utility hasn’t provided the data to support its proposed rate hike.

“It’s disturbing we have a monopoly not acting in good faith wanting a bailout, rewarding them for bad behavior,” Silber said.

Several speakers brought up the compensation paid to PNM executives. In May, shareholders approved a salary, bonus and benefits package that could mean PNM President and Chief Executive Officer Pat Vincent-Collawn could be paid more than $4 million this year — down from about $5.2 million last year. The utility’s top five executives could be paid as much as a total of $8.6 million this year.

But Carla Sonntag, representing the New Mexico Utility Shareholders Alliance, said, “Only a small amount of executive salaries comes from the rates.”

Sonntag, who said her group represents about 8,000 shareholders, was the only speaker Monday who favored the rate increase. She said the proposal is a compromise agreed on by several interveners in the case, including the Attorney General’s Office, the city of Albuquerque and several environmental groups. “I don’t believe any party got all of what they wanted,” she said.

The compromise came after Public Regulation Commission hearing officers rejected an initial PNM request for $99.2 million.

Another PNM shareholder, Ann Lacy of Santa Fe, spoke against the new rate hike proposal, saying the utility needs to focus on what’s best for its customers and not its shareholders. “Most shareholders live out of state,” she said. “PNM has to find a better business model.”

Ware, the PNM spokesman, said later that a majority of the utility’s shares are held through institutions, making it difficult to track where owners live.

Regarding the overwhelming number of negative comments about his company, Ware said, “We know people are passionate about this. It was gratifying to hear so much passion this morning from our customers and other interested commenters. Even though most of it was negative, we appreciate it as it helps us know what we need to do to help folks understand what this is about.”

He added, “We want the same thing as the folks that spoke this morning. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in renewable energy and more gets added each year. We were the first energy provider to invest in and build a utility scale battery storage facility. We have more than a million solar panels installed.”

PRC hearing officers will make a recommendation to the commission on PNM’s proposed rate increase following testimony from expert witnesses and attorneys from PNM and others, including the Attorney General’s Office and environmental groups.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­n.com. Read his blog at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/roundhouse_roundup.

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