New Mexico regulators look into alleged issues with community solar facility selection process
PRC ordered InClime to re-rank community solar applicants after mistakes in the application process. Now, they’re investigating if the company did it right the second time.
The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is looking into how an independent party selected community solar facility operators. (Mischa Keijser/Getty Images)
The process to make renewable energy more accessible to New Mexicans through community solar has been met with multiple delays and issues.
Now, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is looking into more alleged errors that could weigh down the setup of the renewable energy program.
What is community solar?
Lawmakers approved the creation of New Mexico’s community solar program in 2021 with an intent to get affordable solar energy to low-income communities. New Mexicans who opt-in can get credits on their utility bills.
At a public meeting on Wednesday, the state’s Public Regulation Commission addressed complaints and a petition that allege the organizations selected to set up and run community solar generation facilities were unfairly chosen.
PRC commissioners didn’t take any action on Wednesday, deciding they need more information about how the independent company InClime selected the solar facility operators.
Commissioners said they plan to check in on this again next week.
PRC officials hired the company to help sort applicants for the program. More than 400 applications were submitted to the state.
How we got here
It’s been a bumpy road to determine who will operate renewable energy facilities under the new solar program.
The PRC originally wanted project winners announced in March or April 2023. InClime told the commission they’d choose in May 2023.
On May 9, the PRC followed up with complaints from organizations that applied to set up the solar facilities and caused a delay of the announcement, saying InClime needed to rescore project proposals by May 16.
InClime missed that deadline too, but on May 22, finally picked 45 organizations to set up and operate New Mexico’s community solar program.
Shortly after, multiple organizations that weren’t chosen responded by filing complaints to public regulators about more alleged inaccuracies in the scoring system the second time around.
The PRC dismissed those complaints.
A company that wasn’t chosen and filed a complaint remained undeterred.
Prosperity Works turned in a petition to the PRC, asking largely the same thing as the original complaints — for commissioners to analyze the new scoring system’s fairness.
Under the original process, InClime scored applicants under different categories based on a sliding scale. After the PRC ruling in May, the company changed the scoring system to an all-or-nothing basis.
The updated scoring system
InClime determined rankings by scoring applicants based on different criteria. Some of the categories included innovative commitments that would benefit the local community or community solar program, contracting with local businesses or minority communities, and working with tribal nations.
The company ranked applicants on a sliding scale originally but changed that to a pass-or-fail following the PRC’s order in May.
For example, for the innovativeness category, applicants could previously get anywhere from zero to five points, with zero being the worst and five being the best. However, under the revised scoring system, applicants could either get scored a zero or a five.
Some applicants who received full points on the sliding scale dropped to zero under the all-or-nothing system, according to complaints filed over the past month.
PRC debates the issue
On Wednesday, PRC regulators wondered out loud how the scores could change so drastically. Public regulation commission counsel Russell Fisk explained the issue to the state officials after Commissioner James Ellison brought the topic to the table for discussion.
“Does it make sense to you, Mr. Fisk, that InClime would, on a sliding scale, award a company a five for having the maximum points for innovative commitments, and then, under the all-or-nothing, give them a zero?” Ellison asked.
Fisk said he sees Ellison’s point.
But, he said, InClime had to start from scratch so the new rankings could make sense. He continued to say that under the scoring process, a company ranked higher on a sliding scale, could sensibly go to zero on an all-or-nothing scale
PRC Commissioner Gabriel Aguilera said he could understand the new scoring system InClime used the second time.
Still, Ellison wasn’t entirely convinced.
“It just seems to me that if you gave a project a five previously under the sliding scale (then) you thought they were extremely innovative,” Ellison said. “And then to say, no, they weren’t innovative at all in the next scoring round — I’m just not sure that I can support that given the information that I have right now.”
Ellison and Aguilera voted to table the matter until next week. PRC chair Pat O’Connell didn’t speak much on the issue and voted against tabling it. He was overruled by a 2-1 vote.
“None of this is ideal,” Aguilera said.
Solar applicants burned
Tobin Booth is the CEO of OneEnergy, a Washington-based solar energy company that wasn’t chosen for the community solar program. OneEnergy was also one of the companies that filed a complaint to the PRC commissioners.
Booth told Source NM he’s not satisfied with the PRC’s handling of the scoring issues. He said via email that the change in grading applications “could be viewed by those communities as a failure of the state to represent their interests.”
“The NM PRC’s actions are reprehensible in my opinion,” he said. “The PRC should be held accountable for short-changing the New Mexico people, at a minimum.”
Other states creating community solar programs are looking to New Mexico as a role model, Booth said, and changes to the solar facility selection process without public input “deepens existing inequities and fails to meet what should be a high standard in the clean energy transition.”
At the Wednesday meeting, Ellison requested that PRC staff gather more information from InClime, including data about the new scoring process. Aguilera agreed that the PRC could ask more questions about how the new scoring worked.
Obtaining the scores
Source NM has requested public records showing the original project scores and the revised scores. The Public Regulation Commission said it would take a few months to fulfill the request.
However, Aguila said, the PRC hired InClime as an independent administrator to take care of this work in order for the PRC to stay away from the solar facility selection process. He doesn’t want to get too involved himself.
Ellison agreed that it’s up to InClime to run the selection process, not the PRC, but said the scoring still seems inconsistent.
“We have been and should continue to be hands-off,” he said. “I do think that it makes sense to check to see whether they’re doing a good job in this one area.”
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