SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - In a fight that was already lopsided, the Goliath could be getting steroids.
At least that’s what Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the nonprofit New Energy Economy, fears is possible with major changes coming for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and the state’s largest electric utility.
Nanasi, whose organization advocates for clean energy and lower utility costs, has been battling Public Service Co. of New Mexico for years over its requests for customer rate increases and power source plans.
Her group also has fiercely opposed the state’s Energy Transition Act - a 2019 law that requires New Mexico to fully shift to renewable energy by 2045 - because it includes provisions tied to PNM’s plans to shut down a coal plant.
Nanasi claims New Energy Economy has saved PNM ratepayers $500 million over the past 10 years through legal interventions, and she said the group was “instrumental in a 100% renewable replacement” for the San Juan Generating Station, the coal plant near Farmington that stands at the center of her opposition to the energy law.
Her organization has sometimes stood alone in its fight against the electric utility, and she now worries it will face an even bigger foe in coming years after PNM is acquired by a larger energy company and the Public Regulation Commission undergoes an overhaul.
Voter-approved changes to the regulatory agency, in which members will be appointed by the governor rather than elected, will take effect in 2023.
The utility buyout could come sooner.
Last month, a Connecticut-based sustainable energy company announced plans to buy PNM’s parent company. Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources’ chairwoman, president and CEO, said the $4.3 billion deal with Avangrid will help the utility transition to renewable energy. Avangrid is owned by Spain-based energy giant Iberdrola, the third-largest power company in the world.
For Nanasi, an Avangrid buyout of PNM could mean a drought-stricken state facing severe effects from climate change will see a renewable energy boom, and utility consumers will see lower-cost electricity.
Avangrid is a major wind power company that seeks to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2035 - a decade sooner than the state’s energy law requires.
“I think that’s going to benefit all of us,” said Ray Sandoval, a spokesman for PNM.
But the buyout also could mean New Mexico will “quadruple down on the company store mentality,” Nanasi argued. PNM, one of the largest contributors to state political races, could grow even deeper pockets, she said.
PNM Resources spent $61,899 on direct political contributions during the 2020 election cycle, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks political spending. The company also spent $120,000 on lobbying in 2019.
Top contributions included $9,385 to U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who lost her reelection bid to Republican Yvette Herrell in a southern New Mexico congressional district, and $7,762 to President-elect Joe Biden.
Avangrid and its parent company already have a political presence in the state.
Avangrid donated $2,500 to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in November 2019, and Iberdrola has funded the King Felipe VI Chair in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for more than 15 years.
More concerning to Nanasi is the passage of a constitutional amendment that will replace the five elected public regulation commissioners with three positions appointed by the governor. Voters passed the measure on a more than 10-point margin in the general election.
Having appointed PRC members will likely increase political influence, Nanasi said.
Two commissioners who opposed the PRC overhaul - Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Valerie Espinoza - agreed with Nanasi that having appointed commissioners means less accountability for the public.
“It’s not about qualifications. It’s about a will to serve the people who elected you to represent them,” said Espinoza, whose term expires Dec. 31.
Becenti-Aguilar said deep-pocketed individuals and corporations who want to influence utility regulation could simply donate large sums to gubernatorial candidates.
But supporters of the amendment, such as Commissioner Cynthia Hall, argued appointments will lead to more competent utility regulators who have the technical expertise to do the job without political influence.
Nanasi said the true repercussions of the PRC changes will depend on the next governor.
“This governor has been terrible at holding industry accountable,” she said, referring to Lujan Grisham.
Although environmentalists have praised Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, for being more eco-friendly than her Republican predecessor, Nanasi said Lujan Grisham has made appointments to the state’s Oil Conservation Division who have given industry a pass.
She said the agency created a proposed methane rule riddled with loopholes that undercuts its intent of lowering emissions.
In the meantime, Nanasi is still fighting the landmark Energy Transition Act even after the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the Public Regulation Commission must implement it.
She has referred to the energy law, championed by Lujan Grisham, as a “corporate bailout” for PNM’s investors and has argued it will come at a high price for consumers.
PNM and other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have said it will instead lower ratepayers’ costs.
Nanasi said she hopes for a radically different kind of governor in the future who will herald changes for the average New Mexico resident while being a warrior for the environment.
“Not a mainstream Democrat kind of person,” she said.
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