New Mexico joined a six-state pilot community solar program created by the federal government as the state enacted its own state-level regulations to bring solar power and electric bill savings to low-income customers.
Community solar projects allow electricity customers who either cannot afford to install their own solar panels, or rent their homes, to tap into installations known as “solar gardens” which are smaller than utility-scale solar farms but can serve multiple customers simultaneously.
In New Mexico, the Community Solar Act passed in 2021 called on the state’s Public Regulation Commission to devise a rulemaking to allow the concept to occur in the state.
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This came as state leaders hoped to increase renewable energy sectors in New Mexico, a move to reduce the state’s reliance on oil and gas and meet climate change goals and pollution reductions called for by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham since she took office in 2019.
Those efforts were intended to be furthered with New Mexico’s inclusion in the federal program, along with Colorado, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
The pilot Community Solar Subscription Platform will offer community solar through a digital interface to government programs, initially focusing on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program which helps low-income residents lower electric bills.
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The U.S. Department of Energy said it hoped the pilot program would result in community solar systems being used to create $1 billion in savings by 2025 – powering the equivalent of 5 million homes in the six states.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in announcing the program that it would improve access to renewable sources of energy, which she said was especially important for low-income homes that also could see “disproportionately” high bills.
In New Mexico, this could mean a savings of 20 percent off electric bills, the DOE reported, up to $30 million.
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“New Mexico is excited to participate in this pilot program, which builds on my administration’s efforts to make solar available to everyone,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a long-time support of renewable energy and critic of fossil fuels, said the relief would help New Mexicans struggling with high energy bills amid a dire heatwave and drought racking the state this year.
“To a family on a tight budget, higher energy costs can be devastating,” Heinrich said. “With the sweltering heat wave sweeping across the nation over these past weeks, we must do all we can to maintain a reliable and affordable way for people to cool their homes without breaking the bank.”
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Heinrich also pointed to his state’s recent policies to increase tax credits for homes and businesses converting to solar energy, and the shift by New Mexico’s lead utility companies to grow their renewable energy offerings to customers.
In the recent Inflation Reduction Act proposed by the Senate, which saw U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), typically an opponent of tougher environmental regulations on the energy industry, appear to reach an agreement with party colleagues on multiple climate-related provisions, Heinrich said he also secured language for rebate program for Americans electrifying their homes to reduce emissions.
“New Mexico is leading the nation in a number of policies that encourage the deployment of solar generation,” Heinrich said. “I am focused on how we can accelerate the deployment of both residential and utility-scale solar in every corner of our state — and all across the nation.”
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Pushing renewable energy such as solar and wind power could also generate jobs, Granholm said, as the sectors continue to grow in New Mexico and across the country.
Recent employment data from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) showed New Mexico saw a 7.1 percent growth in solar jobs between 2020 and 2021.
That growth accounted for 133 new jobs, from 1,880 solar workers in 2020 to 2,013 last year.
The report showed a 9 percent increase nationwide during that time from, adding 21,563 jobs.
Despite its growth rate below the national average, the U.S. Energy Information Administration ranked New Mexico as third in the nation for solar potential, behind only Nevada and Arizona.
IREC Chief Executive Officer Larry Sherwood said it was up to federal decision makers to embolden solar power in states like New Mexico, efforts needed to support further growth in the industry, to overcome global supply disruptions, and other obstacles.
“America’s solar industry came back strong from the pandemic to expand the clean energy workforce across all regions of the country,” Sherwood said. “There is potential for unprecedented job growth in the coming years if federal, state, and local leaders take action to expand clean energy use and address climate change.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.