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Push for more renewable energy clears New Mexico Senate

A measure aimed at increasing New Mexico’s reliance on renewable energy and easing the economic pains of shuttering a coal-fired power plant in the northwest corner of the state cleared a major legislative hurdle late Wednesday after a lengthy debate.

The Senate voted 32-9 in favor of the measure, sending it to the House for consideration as lawmakers prepare to wrap up the session in less than two weeks.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who campaigned on boosting the number of wind turbines and solar panels around the state, has said she supports the measure. She considers it a compromise.

“It takes from many proposed solutions and paves the best possible path forward to lead New Mexico into a clean energy future while protecting and supporting the San Juan community,” she said in a statement issued the day before the debate.

The bill would allow the state’s largest electric provider – Public Service Co. of New Mexico – and other owners of the San Juan Generating Station to recover investments made in the coal-fired plant by selling bonds that are later paid off by utility customers.

It also would establish funds to help affected communities and displaced workers and would mandate that any replacement energy sources be constructed in the school district where the San Juan Generating Station is located. Supporters say that would help offset lost tax revenues.

Some lawmakers reiterated concerns Wednesday that protections are lacking for San Juan County, which has warned of dire economic consequences once the plant and its adjacent mine are closed in 2022.

“This is a major part of our economy. It’s a major part of the state’s economy,” said Republican Sen. William Sharer of Farmington, citing tens of millions of dollars in annual payroll as well as severance, property and gross receipts taxes.

Sharer held up the vote in a failed effort to include language that would allow for a feasibility study on installing carbon-capture technology at the power plant. The city of Farmington has been negotiating with an investment firm that has proposed keeping the plant and mine open and capturing carbon dioxide emissions that could be used to help with oil drilling.

While opponents questioned the plan, Sharer argued that New Mexico is “the perfect place to begin the trip to reduce CO2 in our air.”

“If we abandoned this opportunity, shame on us,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, argued that the measure was well thought out and that the state has a moral responsibility to protect the environment while standing by the workers.

“This transition is happening, and it’s happening because of forces outside of the control of this room,” Candelaria told his fellow lawmakers. “And the responsible thing for us to do as a state is to develop a clear, responsible plan of how we will tackle that transition head on.”

The legislation would set aggressive new quotas for renewable energy production by New Mexico’s publicly regulated utilities and cooperatives. The goal is to produce 50 percent of retail electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2030 and be carbon-free by 2045.

New Mexico is among several states considering legislation aimed at eliminating fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas from their electricity supplies.