The Energy Transition Act is facing a big test this week before the Public Regulation Commission.
Commissioners, charged with regulating public utilities — including electric providers such as Public Service Company of New Mexico — need to let the act work as intended. Otherwise, the dozens of workers and cities depending on provisions in the act to ease the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be hurt.
For the act to be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, numerous moving parts had to be aligned. Some $40 million is being set aside to go to communities impacted by the closure of coal plants and eventual shutdown of mines, with money for development of new industry and retraining of workers. PNM agreed to close the coal plant at the San Juan Generating Station while replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind and other renewables, putting New Mexico in the forefront of new energy.
In return, the act agreed to allow PNM to use a process known as securitization, which allows customers to pay off bonds, to help retire the plant’s assets. Savings from that process are funding the $40 million to assist the San Juan community in its transition and also are intended to save PNM customers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The act successfully balanced many competing interests. It can work, if only the PRC will allow it.
Instead, the PRC apparently is saying that the Energy Transition Act might not apply to the retirement of PNM’s coal-fired plant in what appears to be an attempt to circumvent the law as passed by the Legislature. This happened when the commission voted in July to exclude the Energy Transition Act from applying to the PRC decision on closure of the San Juan Generating Station. Unfortunately, Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who represents Santa Fe, is leading the charge in this unwise move. She should let the law work.
The details are complicated, with the dispute centering on whether the case to abandon the coal plant predates the law, which took effect June 14. Commissioners seemed to decide in July to hold the abandonment-and-financing hearings under an existing case docket filed before the Energy Transition Act became law, separating the consideration of replacement resources into a post-ETA docket. By doing that, the commission could effectively jettison terms of the Energy Transition Act, including how PNM is financing its move to renewables.
Backers of the law, including the Navajo Nation and environmental groups such as Western Resources Advocates, believe the act must guide all of the terms and conditions of how PNM leaves coal behind. Utility Dive, a website that covers energy issues, said the 4-1 PRC vote in July “effectively circumvents the Energy Transition Act,” catching PNM by surprise. The utility company needs the Energy Transition Act up and running, plain and simple.
In the article, Noah Long of the National Resources Defense Council is quoted as saying, “This is an intentional action by a regulatory agency to disrupt a legislative process, which is inappropriate and not legally sound. My hope is out of this stew we will get the commission and officers to realize it’s not their role to undermine a law that has been enacted, but if that’s not the case then clearly judicial review will be necessary.”
Trouble is, a hearing before the state Supreme Court could mean delay in providing assistance to the regions affected by abandoning coal. At the mine that supplies the San Juan Generating Station, work is slowing and will be phased out by 2021, with significant layoffs expected. The workers deserve the protections developed under the Energy Transition Act.
The Public Regulation Commission should make it clear how it believes the Energy Transition Act applies in the case of the San Juan Generating Station. That needs to happen sooner, not later — it’s not enough to let the hearing examiner consider the matter in October. Delays cost money.
Remember this: It’s in the best interest of ratepayers, affected communities and the state as a whole for the PRC to allow the Energy Transition Act to work as intended. Commissioners should follow the law.