The two contenders for the Democratic nomination for public regulation commissioner for District 5 brought what has become a fierce fight to Silver City for a Daily Press candidate forum Friday night. There, the two laid out their plans for New Mexico’s renewable energy future, before touching on rural broadband possibilities to cybersecurity.
The New Mexico PRC regulates a whole list of utilities throughout the state. What typically catches the public eye are cases around the state’s energy profile and the few giant companies that control it – rate increases, percentage of renewable, etc. The PRC, though, also oversees the state fire marshal department, the telecommunication industry, even taxis.
Most of the questions from the audience Friday night, at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center, focused on renewable energy and how the Democratic nominee would increase its presence in New Mexico if they win the general election in November.
Sandy Jones, the incumbent commissioner and current PRC chairman, has served on the commission twice – from 2005 through 2010, and from 2015 to the present. He said that he has spent that entire time bolstering the renewable energy landscape through his work on the commission.
“We brought 2,300 megawatts of renewable energy this year alone,” he said. “We are doing everything we know how to grow our renewables, so we can get off coal and gas.”
He also pointed to the current commission’s carbon reduction rule and the geothermal generator they approved for Hidalgo County – but that has been held up in court by New Energy Economy, an organization that has backed candidate Steve Fischmann.
Fischmann, though, said that renewable integration in New Mexico has been delayed by the current PRC allowing the utilities – especially PNM and El Paso Electric – to gain the upper hand in their dealings.
As always, when discussing renewable energy, the candidates circled several times back to whether or not solar, wind and the rest are cost-effective enough at this time to rely on large-scale.
“There is no storage that is economical or workable at the industry level,” Jones said.
Fischmann claimed that areas all over the country are getting closer to proving that wrong.
“There is a misconception that we can’t have renewables affordably,” he said. “There is a recent bidding in Colorado to provide energy credits. Wind, plus storage and solar, plus storage was found to be substantially cheaper than the cheapest natural gas. This is not a battle between the environment and cost.”
Later, he pointed to Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and some programs in California as being positive role models for renewables in New Mexico. He also pointed to a report from the National Regulatory Research Institute, which he claimed found New Mexico’s PRC wanting.
“The second thing they found is [the PRC] are not particularly interested in new ideas,” Fischmann said. “In an industry that is moving so fast in the power side of regulation, you have to try new ideas. You have to make mistakes, even, so you can learn from them. None of that is going on.”
Jones argued there was such a thing as too fast.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Pioneers get slaughtered and settlers prosper,’” he said. “We watch what California does all the time and watch what they mess up. We know we can’t bring those here. If you want to pay 30 cents per kilowatt hour, California is the way to go. But we have people who can’t afford that. We have a responsibility that if you switch that light switch on, the light turns on.”
Both did agree that, at least when the time is right, net metering was a good idea to pursue. Net metering is a system that allows solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy generators to be tied in to a grid by consumers who own them, so those consumers can bank the energy they create in the system when they can produce, then draw energy from the grid when they aren’t creating – like at night. This helps the consumers who produce energy to offset the cost of buying energy from the utility.
“Across the nation, there have been debates over this,” Fischmann said. “Different jurisdictions have come to very different conclusions. We are going to have to have a docket keeping track of all of this going on across the country, so we have all the information. As technology changes, the answer is going to change.”
“The docket does have to get opened up to the variables and benefits of net metering,” Jones said. “There are some obvious benefits to the grid. There are also some things that could backfire.”
One audience member asked about cybersecurity and the potential for a hacker to bring down an entire utility grid.
Both agreed that was a concern. Fischmann said microgrids can help avoid security problems but would have problems exporting energy to California because of interconnection problems.
Jones said he is the one who goes to Washington and gets the briefings on cybersecurity on the commission.
“It’s one of the most critical things the utilities are facing right now and we need to understand because they are going to come to the commission for relief,” Jones said. “And it’s not just the electric grid, we have a water and natural gas grid.”
But Fischmann cautioned making huge investments in security until the commission understands the systems as a whole
Another audience member asked what the PRC can do to bring improved public transportation to rural areas.
Jones said that’s not within the PRC’s wheelhouse.
“We regulate taxis, limos, ambulances, shuttle services,” he said. “But other than someone coming forward and making sure they have safe drivers and they have adequate insurance to protect the consumers, that’s about the extent of what we can do.”
“I would take a more aggressive attack here,” Fischmann said. “The same way we think of broadband, and provide an incentive to get operators in to provide services.”
He said an Uber/Lyft model might make more sense economically than a large-scale public transportation operation and would provide jobs within the community and have the community serve itself, with the PRC providing the catalyst.
Both candidates agreed that lack of access to high-speed internet hurts rural areas.
“I wish there was an easy answer on this,” said Fischmann. “I have to give some credit to Sandy because he has pushed on this and made some progress. I think it had been ignored for a long time. We need a heck of a lot more of it and Sandy and I definitely agree on it. It is just so crucial to keeping our rural areas vibrant.”
“Our kids can’t get a good education without a robust internet,” said Jones. “We can’t even file our taxes unless we have a robust internet.”
When asked about funding and staffing for the agency, the candidates veered in different directions.
“We got a 9 percent increase in our budget, but it’s still 30 to 40 percent below where it needs to be,” Jones said. “We need to change the way we charge utilities for rate cases. A filing fee for a utility should be $2,000 or $3,000,” he said, so the agency can adequately fund its positions.
“We have four statutory positions unfunded,” said Jones. “Those are key, important positions. We have an 18 percent vacancy rate. Those are unfunded. The Legislature recognizes those positions are necessary, but no budget has allocated to hire them. It’s important that we set the tone for the Legislature and tell them where the funding shortfalls are. We need to beef up our engineering staff and beef up our salaries and bring in young people.”
Fischmann disagreed, saying lack of funding is not the problem.
“I’m reluctant to say because I think there are a lot of things we can do to make the commission more efficient,” he said. “We need to do that first. Seventy-five percent of my dealing with the PRC has been over procedural legalistic issues. The PRC does not require enough transparency from utilities. Why don’t we have rulemaking that requires utilities to put those facts in a manageable order. We can do a lot to speed up the process and reduce the need for staff.”
Campaign Finance Contributions
Much of the news surrounding this Democratic primary for District 5 of the PRC has been around accusations by each campaign that the other has accepted inappropriate campaign donations.
The challenger, Fischmann, has criticized Jones for accepting a series of donations from Affordable Solar and connected companies, lobbyists, executives, after the PRC approved a $73 million Affordable Solar contract with PNM – after a hearing examiner recommended they deny it instead. Fischmann went as far Friday as to say that any vote Jones and District 4 Commissioner Linda Lovejoy – who accepted similar campaign donations after the fact – cast regarding Affordable Solar in the future should not be trusted. He even called for them to recuse themselves.
Jones, though, criticized Fischmann’s acceptance of what he called “dark money” from New Energy Economy, its executive director, Mariel Nanasi, and a PAC set up to support Fischmann, funded by those backers.
Both spent their closing statements attacking the other’s acceptance of these contributions and defending their own.
Fischmann said New Mexico should consider carefully moving to an appointed PRC, rather than elected. He said that may alleviate some corruption. Jones disagreed.
“Wouldn’t you all just love for Susana Martinez to appoint your PRC commission?” Jones asked. “Seventy-four percent appointed by governors are government insiders. How many times did you try to call the governor’s office and get a response? That’s who you’d have to call with a problem. How many times did you call my office and get a response? Don’t give up your choice. Don’t delegate it to a single governor. You won’t like it.”
Fischmann said the commission could instead be appointed by a bipartisan committee.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face one of three Republican candidates running for their party’s nomination – Joseph Bizzell, Ben Hall and Chris Mathys – in the November election.
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