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One hundred miles northeast of Dallas, Texas, sits a 260-megawatt solar array operated by Lightsource BP. During the deep freeze, the site operated at 80 percent of its capacity and, through the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, delivered 3.6 million kilowatt-hours of power to the state where other more “traditional” means of power generation failed. Since then, interest in solar power across Texas has reached new peaks. EnergySage, a site that helps solar shoppers compare residential solar bids, reported a 200 percent increase in their website traffic as Texans searched for a little more grid independence. There are some homeowners, however, who are not in a position to take advantage of solar. In New Mexico, House Bill 106, which would introduce community solar across the state, presents a solution to avoid that potential problem.
The bill, introduced by Democratic Representatives Patricia Roybal Caballero, Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics, Joanne Ferrary and Senator Linda Lopez, would allow for installations of community solar projects. Community solar refers to a local solar facility shared by a nearby community of subscribers who will receive credit on their electricity bills to share the power produced. This would provide an alternative to placing solar panels on rooftops while still allowing New Mexico residents the opportunity to take advantage of solar. Currently, anyone that lives in an apartment, a house that lacks adequate roof space, or has financial restrictions, cannot take advantage of solar. Community solar would provide those homeowners, renters and businesses equal access to solar energy, along with all of its economic and environmental advantages, but without the requirement of owning their home or business.
According to Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen, the community solar bill, which has already cleared the Senate Conservation Committee, would encourage energy development all across New Mexico and on tribal land. “It is time to democratize energy production in New Mexico. It’s time to move away from outdated models and monopoly power,” Hansen told the committee. Supporters of the bill believe that passing it would help New Mexico reach goals set forth by the Energy Transition Act, which requires 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and, eventually, 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. To qualify as a community solar project, the solar facility, among other things, must have at least 10 subscribers and is limited to a size of five megawatts.
The economic impacts of allowing community solar were analyzed in a recent report commissioned by the Coalition for Community Solar Access. The report, which was published by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) in January, highlights the economic and fiscal impacts of community solar projects and how they can sustainably contribute to New Mexico’s economy. For example, a single 5-megawatt solar array can potentially support 38 jobs, provide $1.47 million in labor income and create about $5.17 million in industrial output. Scale that up statewide and the cumulative economic impact for 100 megawatts of solar, installed in 5-megawatt facilities, can create 3,760 jobs and generate over $517 million in various economic benefits.
Even with these outlined benefits, some opponents of the bill, including Democratic and Republican legislators, remain unconvinced. Ashley Wagner with the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry told lawmakers that the community solar bill, as it is currently drafted, could negatively affect businesses that are still trying to recover. “This bill harms struggling communities and families because the true cost of community solar for the average family or business has not been established,” she said. “How can any one of us push policy through without knowing the true cost and financial toll it will have on our most vulnerable communities.”
As witnessed in this week’s storm damage in Texas, a regulated and interconnected network of community solar facilities could help avoid future catastrophic outages, disproportionately burdened lower-income communities.