A technician servicing photovoltaic cells at a solar energy farm In Albuquerque. (Photo By Getty Images)
A technical error discovered this week caused another delay to the state’s community solar program that aims to establish community solar facilities around the state and give New Mexicans a break on their utility bills.
On Tuesday, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission responded to a complaint filed by Massachusetts-based Lightstar Renewables, one of hundreds of entities seeking permission to build and operate solar farms in the state as part of the community solar program.
What’s community solar?
The community solar program, established by the Community Solar Act New Mexico lawmakers passed in 2021, allows multiple households or businesses to get energy from solar farms.
Nearly a third of the energy must go to low-income communities, and New Mexicans who opt in can get credits on their electric utility bills.
Lightstar Renewables filed a complaint to the PRC about an error it found caused by the company InClime — the party responsible for ranking project requests from those who want to build out community solar infrastructure.
The PRC received Lightstar’s emergency complaint one day before InClime intended to announce who gets to set up and run solar farms, as decided by the company’s review process.
The PRC responded by ruling that there was a technical error in the proposal application.
That issue caused InClime, which has reviewed more than 400 project proposals and bids since February, to incorrectly score some of the entities that applied and bid to be part of the community solar program, potentially making them lose out on the opportunity.
PRC spokesperson Patrick Rodriguez said InClime has to rescore 32 applications by May 16, which is when the company said it’ll announce awardees, a week after the original date.
Miana Campbell is InClime’s community solar lead for New Mexico. During Tuesday’s special PRC meeting, she explained the technical error stemmed from InClime ranking applicants based off of two different measures that a licensed engineer approved proposed permitting plans.
Only one approval measure was necessary, according to Lightstar’s complaint. The PRC agreed, forcing InClime to delay the award announcement.
“Although the final scores are delayed, we are thrilled to announce that we expect awards for its program to go out next week,” Campbell said.
She said InClime’s goal is to announce what organizations get to participate as quickly as possible.
“We understand that many of you are eagerly awaiting the results and we appreciate your patience,” she said.
The process to set up New Mexico’s community solar program has been stalled since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the act, partly due to utilities fighting in court community solar rules that the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission set up.
Litigation is still ongoing.
The latest delay comes after months of back-and-forth between the PRC and utilities. The PRC repeatedly found issues with the investor-owned utilities’ involvement, and former commissioner Joseph Maestas voiced frustration at utility companies’ attempts to seemingly “obstruct and delay community solar.”
Holding the solar operators accountable
Entities that applied and bid through InClime to be part of New Mexico’s community solar program proposed commitments that would be beneficial to the nearby communities, like working with local or minority-owned businesses or offering workforce training or educational opportunities.
PRC Commissioner Patrick O’Connell asked how InClime would hold the chosen solar operators accountable to these commitments. He questioned if the commitments the applicants proposed are unambiguous and easy to measure, and Campbell said most of them are pretty black and white.
For example, she said, applicants who would be committed to working with a local or diverse business clearly laid out how they would do that, so it would be pretty straightforward for InClime to track that.
However, not everything will be that simple, she added.
She said other commitments could be less objective.
She brought up another example, where an operator committed to creating educational opportunities and developed something like program materials for local universities, which could be interpreted subjectively.
“That’s something we did try to distill as much as possible too — this is what they’re committing to, and this is the timeline that they’re committing to,” she said.
O’Connell also had questions about what would happen if the chosen solar operators can’t meet the commitments they said they would.
“Hopefully this process works fantastically and the projects that we pick are all delivered exactly along the commitments,” he said. But, he continued, what if it doesn’t work out perfectly?
Campbell said concrete disciplinary measures still need to be worked out. She said the rules now do lay out that InClime can take disciplinary action if commitments aren’t being adhered to, including kicking operators out of the program, but it’s still pretty vague.
“I think that’s something that we’ll have to think about a little bit more in-depth,” she said.
She also said that it would be unfortunate if operators built their solar farms just to get kicked out of the program.
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