A hearing examiner for the state Public Regulation Commission in October recommended commissioners reject a proposal by Public Service Company of New Mexico to purchase five solar farms to be built for the electric utility by the firm Affordable Solar.

“This was not a difficult call,” wrote examiner Carolyn Glick, who said PNM had failed to show the purchase was the most cost-effective way for the company to procure solar power.

Other PRC staff also opposed commission approval of the PNM’s project with Affordable Solar, a privately held Albuquerque company founded two decades ago.

But in November, the commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the recommendations of the hearing examiner and other staff, saying they disagreed with the examiner’s finding that PNM’s process of seeking proposals for supplying solar power was unfair to some bidders.

The three votes for the Affordable Solar project came from Patrick Lyons, Lynda Lovejoy and Sandy Jones, the PRC chairman.

Now, Affordable Solar and related companies and individuals are largely funding the campaigns of Lovejoy and Jones for re-election to the PRC, according to campaign-finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. (Lyons is running for state land commissioner and hasn’t received political donations from Affordable Solar.)

Mark Fleisher of Albuquerque, a registered lobbyist for Affordable Solar and a longtime campaign consultant, also has done volunteer work for the Lovejoy and Jones re-election campaigns. Fleisher worked as a paid consultant on the Lovejoy and Jones campaigns in 2014.

The total cost of the PNM project with Affordable Solar has been pegged at nearly $73 million. Affordable Solar would build solar farms on land selected by PNM, then sell the farms to the utility.

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe nonprofit working to reduce reliance on power produced by fossil fuels and nuclear plants, said the votes by Lovejoy and Jones for PNM’s deal with Affordable Solar — and the campaign donations related to the company — have created an appearance of impropriety.

New Energy Economy opposed the Affordable Solar project and is appealing the PRC approval to the state Supreme Court, arguing it wasn’t the best possible deal for PNM customers. There is a possibility the Supreme Court could send the Affordable Solar project back to PRC commissioners.

Eric Griego, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Working Families Party of New Mexico, said the PRC approval of the Affordable Solar project and the campaign contributions to Lovejoy and Jones raise obvious ethical issues.

“We [also] are concerned about the effects these PRC decisions will have on New Mexico families,” Griego said.

In an interview Wednesday in his office, Jones said approving the Affordable Solar project was the right thing to do because it will reduce the state’s reliance on power generated by coal and natural gas.

“We’re making good things happen here,” he said. “That’s why people are donating to my campaign.”

Asked to characterize the appearance of voting for the project, then receiving most of his campaign cash from Affordable Solar and related companies and individuals, Jones said: “It looks how it looks.”

Lovejoy didn’t respond to a request for an interview and instead provided a statement via email. She said the PRC has approved more renewable energy projects than any previous commission.

“In doing so, we are advancing economic development in both rural and urban communities by creating business, industry and jobs, and improving the quality of life for every New Mexican,” the statement said.

Lovejoy’s statement didn’t address the campaign contributions from Affordable Solar and related companies and individuals.

Ryan Centerwall, CEO of Affordable Solar, said the campaign contributions to Lovejoy and Jones didn’t have anything to do with their votes to approve PNM’s deal with the company.

“It has to do with their support of solar generally,” Centerwall said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We support Commissioners Lovejoy and Jones and a number, probably dozens, of Democratic candidates that support solar and renewable energy.”

He said Affordable Solar sponsored a fundraiser for Jones during his 2014 election campaign.

Jones, of Williamsburg, faces former state Sen. Steve Fischmann of Las Cruces in the Democratic primary election in June. Lovejoy, of Crownpoint, is being challenged in the Democratic primary by former PRC Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar of McKinley County and indigenous rights advocate Janene Natasha Yazzie of Gallup.

Campaign cash

Public financing is available to PRC candidates, but Jones and Lovejoy chose to finance their re-election campaigns with private donations.

In his campaign finance report filed last month, Jones reported $20,700 in contributions, with $13,000 of that coming in January through 26 donations of $500 each from Affordable Solar, related companies, company executives and family members of executives.

Under state law, PRC candidates cannot accept a campaign contribution of more than $500 per election.

Jones also received $500 in donations from Hull Consulting, the company of Arthur Hull II, a registered lobbyist for PNM. Jones said he didn’t know Hull was a PNM lobbyist.

In her campaign finance report filed in April, Lovejoy reported $6,000 in contributions, with $4,500 of that coming in March in nine donations of $500 each from Affordable Solar, related companies and company executives.

“It’s our job to support those who support solar,” said Afforable Solar’s Centerwall.

“Solar’s the future of New Mexico,” he said. “People who are willing to vote for it are important to the economy here.”

Fleisher, the lobbyist for Affordable Solar, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he has done a little campaign work for Lovejoy and Jones in their bids for re-election, including logo designs and email review.

He said he doesn’t expect to be a paid campaign consultant again this election for the two but said, “If they ask me to, I would.”

Fleisher said he hasn’t lobbied Lovejoy or Jones on behalf of Affordable Solar.

The Affordable Solar project

PNM proposed the purchase of the solar farms to be built by Affordable Solar as part of a renewable energy plan for 2018.

PNM selected Affordable Solar’s bid from among six bids it received in response to a request for proposals. The bids came from companies that would build and sell solar farms to PNM and independent power companies that would supply electricity from their facilities.

“PNM has not shown that the Affordable Solar Project is the most cost effective renewable solar resource procurement,” hearing examiner Glick wrote in her recommendation to the commission to reject the project.

Glick said the bid process was unfair to independent power companies.

Under PNM’s bid requirements, companies that would build and sell solar farms to PNM could use the utility’s sites for development but independent power companies could not.

Purchasing solar farms will allow PNM to put the costs of the project in its rate base, meaning costs would be passed on to consumers.

Glick also objected to the 31-day period that companies had to respond to PNM’s request for solar power proposals. She said that was unfair to the independent power companies, in part because they had to prepare information on connecting to PNM’s system. Companies that would build solar farms on PNM property and then sell them to the utility didn’t have to provide that information.

In rejecting the examiner’s recommendation and siding with PNM and Affordable Solar, Commissioners Lovejoy, Jones and Lyons disagreed with Glick’s finding that the bid process was unfair to the independent power companies.

“The fact that no bidder requested additional time to submit a bid, or filed a protest to PNM’s procurement plan raising that issue further supports the conclusion that the 31-day deadline was reasonable,” says the PRC’s order in November approving the Affordable Solar project.

The PRC’s order also rejected Glick’s recommendation that it disapprove a geothermal project proposed by PNM.

“The whole point was to bring renewable energy into the market,” Jones said in the interview in his office Wednesday. When such projects are delayed, “we’re going to burn coal and natural gas,” he said.

Jones said it made no sense for PNM to allow independent power companies on their property and that all bidders understood the process and made no complaints.

Jones said New Energy Economy, which opposes the Affordable Solar project, is the biggest detriment to bringing renewable energy to New Mexico, adding the group is aligned with his opponent in the primary election. He also said the commission often rejects hearing examiner recommendations.

PNM didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for an update on the Affordable Solar project. Its plan presented to the PRC and now on appeal to the Supreme Court called for the solar farms to be built in 2018 and 2019.

Contact Thom Cole at 505-986-3022 or tcole@sfnewmexican.com.