Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The Land of Enchantment’s winds blow if the sun disappears and its blue skies are cloudy. That’s just the nature of a high mountain desert climate. The Energy Transition Act (ACT), mandating 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, is giving a hand up to an alternative energy sector that is poised to have its day in the sun. Utility-scale solar and wind now cost a third to half as much as coal or nuclear power, according to an analysis by financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard Ltd. Nearly half of American homeowners have seriously thought about putting solar panels on their home and almost nine out of 10 Americans favor expanding solar power, according to the Pew Research Center.

New Mexico continues to struggle with regulating an oil and gas industry determined to wring years of profits from fossil fuels and that, so far, has avoided a pay-as-you-go plan for the pollution and destruction it leaves in its wake. Renewable energy is that big bright star in the sky that can diversify the state’s economy. To protect our health, climate and pocketbooks, it has become clear in 2020 that New Mexico must improve not only its regulation of dirty fuels but also vigorously enforce those regulations as the industry dies a slow death and look elsewhere for investments in clean, renewable energy sources.

Most of the state’s solar projects to date are in southern New Mexico and surrounding the Albuquerque metro area. The New Mexico State Land Office reported six active solar leases with a capacity of 221 megawatts and 27 lease applications that could bring an added capacity of 2,917 megawatts when completed. 

Most of New Mexico’s wind development has been centered in the rural counties in northern and eastern New Mexico. For wind projects the Land Office reported nine active leases for 345 megawatts of capacity and 19 applications that would increase capacity by 1,835 megawatts. Recent wind project developments in the state include Avangrid Renewables’ 306 megawatt La Joya wind project, started in May 2020. In addition to that, Pattern Energy, in partnership with New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, began construction in Aug. 2020 on the Western Spirit transmission line.

Developing the renewable sector around the state means creating certification programs for those looking to pursue careers in renewable energy, as well as providing training for officials on how to understand and dialog about renewables. At a meeting of economic development associations statewide on how to expand renewable energy development, Myra Pancrazio, executive director of Estancia Valley Economic Development Association, recommended that education on how to meet with big-name energy developers needs to happen across the state. “What we could do to continue creating and building renewable energy projects is to start at the ground level and make sure your economic development organizations and your elected officials are educated and know how to do this,” Pancrazio said.

Local governments have big renewable energy goals. In late 2018 Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced his goal to move the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2022. Over 3,000 city residents took the climate survey to help set the priorities and foundations of the update. The city created a Climate Task Force to act as key authors of the new Albuquerque Climate Action Plan and address the needs and concerns of frontline communities. The Climate Task Force has been updating the next phase of Albuquerque’s climate change vision and the needed citywide improvements. The Task Force meets from Oct. 2020 to March 2021. Learn more about how to attend and give public comments at the task force virtual meetings by going to cabq.gov/sustainability/climate-action-plan/cap-task-force.

In 2020 lawmakers passed a statewide solar tax credit, called the “New Solar Market Development Income Tax Credit.” It covers 10 percent of installation costs, up to a maximum of $6,000. Most average sized 6kW systems cost about $18,000, creating a credit of about $1,800. The credit carries forward for five years if you have less tax due annually than this amount. The legislature also built tax exemptions into the laws, saving you money both up-front and every year thereafter for the life of your new solar power system.

The state’s net metering laws are some of the best in the nation and can be improved upon moving toward 100 percent carbon-free in 2045. Extra solar electricity that is not used can be sent back into the grid at a 1-to-1 retail electricity rate credit. These credits are carried forward indefinitely, and control of any renewable energy credits that the solar systems produce is retained. This means they can be sold to PNM as part of their solar performance program.

New Mexico’s property tax exemption can save property owners money every year. When a solar power system is installed, the home goes up in value by about twenty times your annual electricity bill savings. With this exemption your property taxes stay the same. The Federal Investment Tax Credit will have the biggest effect on the cost to homeowners who go solar in New Mexico. The federal tax credit will be 22 percent in 2021 but, without new legislation, will be gone in 2022.

As New Mexico looks toward its carbon-free future, there are lessons to be learned from African ingenuity. The “Warka” Water Tower, named after the Warka tree, produces up to 25 gallons of water a day without electricity. Developed by a nonprofit, the 30-foot-tall tower is made out of local, natural, biodegradable materials. It has an orange, water-resistant mesh on the inside that collects fog from the atmosphere. The towers only cost about a thousand dollars each, making them easy to build all over Africa. This means villagers do not have to spend four to six hours a day searching for water. New Mexico would do well to pay attention. The future of our state could be full of localized, democratized power systems that offer people cheaper electricity and more choice in where it comes from.

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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.