The Community Solar Gardens Act, which had gained popular support from Albuquerque residents and political committees alike, failed to pass the state House of Representatives by just three votes on Thursday.
The bill, HB338, “provides for the independent development and operation of community solar gardens” within the service territory of investor-owned electric utilities, according to the fiscal impact report summary.
A community solar garden is a solar electric generation facility owned or operated by a public utility, an affiliate of a public utility or a subscriber organization
According to the bill, these facilities would house multiple solar panels and allow the general public and commercial businesses to either rent a portion of the panels or purchase the energy produced.
Had the bill passed, it would have been a step toward making renewable energy more readily available to the general public.
The construction and maintenance of a community solar garden also creates jobs and further promotes the renewable energy industry.
The bill was largely backed by a program of the Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, Juntos, that advocates for the clean energy rights of the local community.
“Policies like the Community Solar Gardens Act would provide an opportunity for communities to be a part of how we power our homes and lives,” said Juntos director Christopher Ramirez. “We are misled to believe that the dirtiest energy is the cheapest option. In reality, we should have access to the renewable energy options that are affordable and healthy for our families.”
The proposed community solar garden would allocate at least ten percent of the energy produced to low-income residential customers, according to the bill. This allows community members who otherwise might not be able to afford or do not have the roofing for solar panels to access solar energy.
Bruce Milne, UNM professor and director of the Sustainability Studies Program, also felt the bill would be beneficial for Albuquerque residents.
“The solar garden bill is a new way to create hyper-local generating facilities that tie to the grid while aiming to give access to low income folks,” Milne said.
Although HB338 did not pass this legislative session, it was a close vote with 31 representatives voting in favor and 34 representatives voting against.
Environmental studies professor Tema Milstein said it was the furthest the issue has progressed in the state legislature.
“This may signal that more legislators are responding to their constituents’ concerns about being able to make choices that support a sustainable future, and next session might bring about a different outcome,” she said.
Milstein said the bill addressed issues of environmental justice and increased access to renewable energy for low income, renter, and community level customers.
“The Community Solar Gardens Act would allow neighbors to join together and create economies of scale to source renewable solar energy,” Milstein said. “Which clearly we have in abundance in our state.”
Liliana Castillo, Communications Director for Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, said New Mexico’s utility providers “all stood up and opposed” the bill in committee, lobbying against it.
“Utilities haven’t found a way to make money from distributed generation yet, and further enabling it runs counter to how they make money,” Castillo said. “I’ll also add that while the utilities testified in opposition to the bill, they didn’t articulate a clear reason for their opposition.”
With the increased interest in renewable energy and the backing from the community and political committees, Albuquerque community members are hopeful that it will be revisited in the coming years.
“We plan to continue advocating for the Community Solar Gardens Act until we can get it passed in New Mexico. All New Mexicans deserve to self-select their own energy sources and community solar is another great way for that to happen.” Castillo stated.