The community solar program allows participating New Mexican households and businesses to get credit on their utility bills. (Photo by Sirisak Boakaew / Getty Images)
New Mexico’s community solar program is stalled again as more allegations arise against the process to pick developers to bring solar energy to the state.
People seeking to set up solar farms for the program are held up by mistakes from a third party company hired to review applications, and it’s unclear when all of the potential issues will be resolved in order to move community solar projects forward.
The Community Solar Act
In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill that authorized the creation of the community solar program, which allows homes and businesses to get credit on utility bills for opting into the solar energy program. Nearly a third of the energy is reserved for low-income communities.
Since then, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has been figuring out the rules of the program with the investor-owned utilities that have to transmit the solar energy. The utilities have been repeatedly fighting back, and litigation is ongoing in the state Supreme Court.
The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is looking into new claims against InClime about improper rankings and errors allegedly made while the company assessed hundreds of community solar applications.
The state contracted InClime in August 2022 to help decide what solar developers get to be part of New Mexico’s community solar program. InClime set up a proposal request process for interested developers, and then it was up to the company to then rank the applications submitted.
Last year, the PRC announced a timeline where developers would be chosen by March or April 2023.
Now, InClime cannot announce which solar developers are chosen under the process until the PRC looks into the new complaints against the company, according to PRC chief of staff Cholla Khoury.
She said the delay is “due to the need to ensure all protests are dealt with appropriately, and in a manner that is in the best interest of New Mexico.”
It’s unclear when InClime will announce the developers going forward in the community solar program.
“While the commission is dedicated to ensuring the process moves along in an efficient and timely manner, we are committed to ensuring it is fair and accountable,” Khoury said.
This is the second week in a row community solar developers will have to wait to find out the fate of their application.
On May 9, the PRC ordered InClime to rescore nearly three dozen applicants whose bids the company may have incorrectly ranked due to technical errors.
The company gave itself a week to finish new reviews and announce winners on May 16.
And since then, two more companies that applied to be part of community solar have filed complaints with the PRC alleging more assessment or scoring mistakes.
Not all of the community solar applicants agree with the delay the complaints have caused.
Corrina Kumpe is the chief operating officer of SunShare.
Before a PRC meeting on Wednesday, she submitted a written public comment to the commission that commended InClime’s proposal application process and said applicants had the opportunity to discuss issues with the scoring scale before results came out.
“While the NM PRC has heard from a few vocal opponents who only objected to the scoring methodology after receiving their points, we wanted to let you know that those bidders don’t represent the entirety of the bidder pool,” she wrote.
Kumpe encouraged the PRC to adhere to InClime’s application process as it was originally laid out and approved by the commission.
Jim DesJardins, executive director of the Renewable Energy Industries Association of New Mexico, voiced more concern about the delays during his public comment on Wednesday.
His renewable energy association includes community solar developers who have applied to be part of the program — one of which filed one of the more recent complaints against InClime.
He said his association is excited about the future of community solar in New Mexico but that the ongoing setbacks are hurting those that want to participate.
Developers or companies that want to be involved in the project have time constraints, like with lease agreements or coordination of labor, and financial arrangements that will only get more expensive over time with rising interest rates, he said.
“Recent delays in the awarding of the projects and the subsequent uncertainty is creating undue hardship,” DesJardins said.
He asked the PRC to prioritize the community solar program rollout and offered to help in any way possible.
“To ensure the success of the initial phase of community solar, we are asking the commission to make the issuance of project awards the highest priority,” he said.
Reps. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Albuquerque) and Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) were sponsors of the Community Solar Act when it passed in the Roundhouse. They said in a joint email statement that they’re still confident in the process of the program getting set up.
“We are eager to see the results in our communities with the new opportunities community solar is bringing and will continue to bring forth,” Roybal Caballero and Romero said.
The representatives also mentioned that the community solar bill itself took years to pass through the Legislature. It failed multiple times before 2021.
“While the legislation took years of effort to get right before its passage, we are confident in the regulators and industry to find the best pathways to success possible,” they said.
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