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TMCNet:  Groups seek new hearing on PRC's renewable-energy rule

[February 20, 2013]

Groups seek new hearing on PRC's renewable-energy rule

Feb 20, 2013 (The Santa Fe New Mexican - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- An industry group, the state's largest utility company and Public Regulation Commission staff are asking for a rehearing on a critical renewable-energy rule that the commission adopted in December after three years of discussion.

Renewable-energy businesses and advocates are decrying the move, saying the rule was a reasonable compromise reached after extensive testimony and two public hearings.

The new hearing was requested by PRC utility staff, Public Service Company of New Mexico and the New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers, a nonprofit organization representing large power users such as Intel, Honeywell, the city of Albuquerque and The University of New Mexico.

The rule lays out a framework for utilities to determine the cost of adding renewable energy and to calculate the impact on customer rates. By law, a utility company doesn't have to add more renewable energy if it would increase customers' bills by more than what is designated as the "reasonable cost threshold." The rule increases that threshold for renewable energy to 3 percent.

The rule also determines the mix of wind, solar and other renewable-energy sources public utilities such as PNM must have in their energy portfolios to meet state standards. New Mexico requires public utilities to provide 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.

The commission approved the rule by 4-1 vote Dec. 18, with Patrick Lyons casting the dissenting vote. He disagrees with the way the costs of renewable energy are calculated and wouldn't oppose reopening the case.

PRC utility staff, New Mexico Industrial Energy Consumers and PNM also disagree with how the benefits of renewable energy should be calculated. It was a big part of the fight between the three and renewable-energy advocates during the rule-making process last year -- and is likely to be again if there is a rehearing. The way those costs are calculated and show up on customers' bills makes a big difference in how the public views renewable energy.

The New Mexico Independent Power Producers said a rehearing isn't in the public interest. The rule was reached through collaboration, consensus, testimony and "thoughtful deliberation by the commission," according to the group.

Dozens of individuals and business owners sent a letter Feb. 5 to commissioners, asking them to keep the final order, calling it a "genuine and reasonable compromise." Some are saying the rule is only being challenged because there are two new commissioners in the wake of the November general election: Valerie Espinoza and Karen Montoya.

Espinoza was the only commissioner around Jan. 25, when a PRC attorney asked for a single signature on a "provisional order" granting the rehearing. The other commissioners still have to decide if they approve a rehearing. But until they decide, the rule is "temporarily" vacated, according to PRC associate general counsel Sandra Skogen. The order doesn't specify when the commission has to make a decision.

Skogen said such provisional orders, signed by one commissioner, aren't unusual. Bruce Throne, attorney for the Renewable Energy Industries Association, disagrees and is protesting the order, saying it was "not authorized by or consistent with New Mexico law." Espinoza, who said she supports increasing renewable energy in the state, said she doesn't want to rehear the renewable energy rule. People "spent a lot of time and effort to bring the rule this far," she said. "It seems like its as good as it gets for a compromise." PRC Chairman Ben Hall said he's not leaning one way or the other on a rehearing, but he will consider it.

Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar said she considers the motions to reopen the case "disrespectful" of the prior commission's decision. She thinks the rule helps promote smaller renewable-energy companies. "Most likely, my vote won't change," she said.

Montoya was unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Steve Michel, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, said regardless of how it's done, the commissioners can rehear any rule any time. "The new rule wasn't really an improvement over the old rule," he said. "Certainly, there is a lot of room for improvement in the reasonable cost threshold and how it is calculated. It is really a mess." Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

___ (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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