Renewable power plan aka ‘Energy Transition Act’ heads to governor

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Solar panels at PNM’s Santa Fe Solar Center. It went online in 2015 and produces 9.5 megawatts, enough energy to power 3,850 average homes.

New Mexico’s lawmakers have approved the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, committing the state to transitioning to 80 percent renewable power by 2040. The act also helps Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) with the costs of closing the San Juan Generating Station. It  directs $30 million toward the clean-up of the coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it and $40 million toward economic diversification efforts in that corner of the state and support for affected power plant employees and miners.

Following the maximum allowed three hours of discussion on the House floor, representatives voted 43 to 22 in favor. Advocates tout the bill’s provisions to aid the community in transitioning from economic dependence on the coal-fired power plant, the closure of which will end 450 jobs, among its selling points.

Lawmakers and affected workers from Farmington vigorously sought amendments that would allow more time to transition the power plant.

The bill had passed the Senate on March 6, following an hours-long filibuster by Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) and a call of the Senate that pulled lawmakers out of an annual basketball game. Sharer nearly chanted a refrain asking for 90 days to study the feasibility of an offer from Acme Equities to purchase the plant from the City of Farmington. He’d attempted to add that amendment when the bill was heard in committee and it failed there as well.

Details of the Acme proposal are unclear. The City of Farmington has produced a letter of intent with the company signed February 21 for further discussion and negotiation of the idea, and an agency agreement dated March 1 committing to negotiate the final terms of a binding transaction agreement.

The measure passed the Senate 32 to 9, with at least six Republicans joining Democrats to advance the bill. After the bill’s passage, Senator Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque), a sponsor, declared that its “strong bipartisan consensus [shows] that the changes that are happening in the world energy market are real. … So many people have called on New Mexico to be proactive, not reactive. Today, we became proactive.”

Committee meetings were routinely stocked with coal miners from San Juan County. They have spoken to concerns about how an already beleaguered part of the state would weather yet another economic downturn, and what they, personally, would face with the loss of six-figure incomes.

The bill rapidly moved through House committees, arriving on the floor on Tuesday afternoon. Like Sharer, Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) called for the full House to hear amendments he proposed.

“None of the answers that have come forward today have been any of the answers that the community has asked for,” he argued.

Instead of leaving San Juan County residents scrambling to recover from the plant’s closure, which the Public Service Company of New Mexico announced two years ago, he proposed an amendment to lengthen the lifespan of the San Juan Generating Station by five years as “a soft landing” for the community.

“We’ll still be scrambling five years from now,” Rep. Paul Bandy (R-Aztec) said.

All amendments were tabled.

House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) challenged the idea that the community hadn’t been consulted, pointing to extensive conversations and thank you’s he personally had received.

“It’s just simply not correct to say that we’re ignoring concerns,” he said.

In closing, Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces), a sponsor of the legislation, urged lawmakers to “stand apart” and support the bill as a way to help a community ahead of when market forces will inevitably close the coal-fired power plant. The huddle of experts behind him throughout the discussion included Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst and, at one point, Candelaria.

The legislation now heads to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign. It’s part of a suite of legislation looking to revise the state’s approach to electricity under a new Democratic governor and Democratic leadership in both chambers.

“Throughout the process, New Mexicans have spoken out in strong support of meeting our energy needs without polluting our air and water or changing our climate. This legislation will do just that by transitioning New Mexico from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” Sanders Moore, director of Environment New Mexico, said in a press statement after the bill passed. “We also want to thank Gov. Lujan Grisham for her strong support of [Energy Transition Act], and look forward to her signing it into law.”