Navigant Research Blog

Net Metering Fight Comes to New Mexico

Richelle Elberg — January 8, 2015

The fight over solar interconnection and net metering – a topic I’ve covered previously in several blogs (here, here, and here) – has come to my home state.  In a rate case filed in December, Public Service of New Mexico (PNM) asked that customers with their own solar generation capacity solar customers be charged $6 per kilowatt (kW) of capacity, per month, beginning in 2016.  It also proposed that “banking” of excess power sold back to the utility be discontinued; this means that rather than selling back excess kilowatt-hours (kWh) generated in March for top dollar in July, solar customers will receive the net value of the energy in the same month that it’s generated.

Girding for a Fight

Solar industry advocates suggest that the plan will severely dampen demand.  New Mexico has abundant sunshine, but a relatively poor economic base, and solar adoption in the Land of Enchantment has been lower than one might expect.  According to IREC, New Mexico ranked 9th nationwide in total PV installations, with 257 megawatts (MW), at the end of 2013.  With accelerating economic recovery and the expiration of federal tax credits just 2 years away, New Mexico is poised for strong growth in 2015-16.

And that’s why PNM is making this move now.  Its argument that non-solar customers are increasingly subsidizing solar customers has merit, and growth in installations is only going to cost PNM more as it not only loses revenue from solar customers, but also must invest in its grid to support increased two-way electricity flow and changing load profiles.

Hitting Home

I’ve studied the proposal with more than just professional interest.  I recently got a quote for a solar array on my own home, in southern New Mexico, and while PNM isn’t my utility, El Paso Electric, my local provider, will surely be watching the proceedings closely.  Here’s my take on the situation, both as an analyst and as a potential solar customer.

First, $6/kW is fairly substantial, from a solar customer’s point of view.  PNM says that the average New Mexico system in its territory is 3-5 kW, but solar installers suggest that recent installations average 6 or 7 kW.  In order to serve my 2,800 square foot home, a 10 kW system was proposed.

So while PNM says its fee would average $18-$30/month, my own system would cost $60/month under the PNM proposal.  That would extend the payback period for my system from 8 years to 11 years.  But, unless I sell my house in the next 10 years, it’s still a good investment.

The solar industry, however, doesn’t agree.  A recent article in the Albuquerque Journal offered detailed numbers to illustrate how PNM’s fees will change the solar equation to the point where consumers are better off sticking with the utility.

Payback Period

There are some flaws with this analysis, however.  First, solar panel prices have been falling dramatically, and should continue to do so for many more years.  So the math outlined in the Journal, based on current prices, will likely become moot in another year or two.  Second, the article fails to ascribe value to the fact that once the system is paid for, the homeowner pays only the connection fee to the utility.

In my case, the average monthly bill would fall from $223 (today) to $60.  Call it a $200 per month saving to account for rate increases.  Even with PNM’s proposed connection fee, the system will easily last long enough to support the investment.

New Mexico’s installed base of solar systems is likely to double or triple over the next decade.  It’s not reasonable to expect utilities to interconnect these customers for free, pay them peak prices for non-peak production, and spread those and other costs over the shrinking base of ratepayers.  But I do think it’s reasonable to question the $6/kW figure and ask PNM to justify it—especially since Arizona’s compromise plan last year came in at a far lower level.

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