PRC commissioners (right) and other New Mexicans listen to public comment in Albuquerque on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
A room that was empty a month ago was scattered with concerned New Mexicans on Thursday, joined by even more online, gathered to speak up against the possibility of more expensive utility bills next year.
The Public Service Company of New Mexico wants to hike up electricity costs in 2024. The utility in December 2022 asked the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to approve a 9.7% rate base increase, which the state officials will decide on in a few months.
The PRC is having an evidentiary hearing from Sept. 5-22 that will be livestreamed on the commission’s YouTube page. After the hearing examiner issues a recommended decision, commissioners will decide whether or not to fully approve PNM’s request.
PRC commissioner James Ellison said a decision is expected by Jan. 4, 2024.
Before that decision, the PRC invited New Mexicans to voice their opinions on the matter. This week, commissioners listened to dozens of people speak for an hour and a half against PNM’s requested price raise and the utility’s history of fossil fuel usage.
This was the second opportunity for New Mexicans to speak after few people attended the first public comment hearing.
Mark Fenton is the executive director of regulatory policy and case management at PNM. He said he was glad more people attended Thursday’s public comment hearing compared to the first one.
“We like to hear what the customers are saying and get the perspectives of the customers,” he said.
How much more would I be paying?
New Mexican Daneon Riley had one question for the commissioners during public comment: What would the new rates actually be?
That’s something that’s still up in the air. Commissioner James Ellison said the PRC can’t answer that yet because it depends on the outcome of the case.
PNM officials say New Mexicans would only see a .75 cent increase in their bills with this rate change, arguing that it would be a less than 1% price hike taking into account renewable energy savings.
Not everyone agrees.
The full rate change requested is 9.7%. New Energy Economy, one of the environmental advocacy organizations fighting the price change, says that would amount to a billing increase of about $13 for at least seven years.
PNM spokesperson Raymond Sandoval also told Source NM last month the stipulation of immediate savings, making it a .75 cent increase, depends on the resolution of ongoing litigation regarding the closed San Juan Generating Station.
The utility didn’t respond to an inquiry on how much more a 9.7% increase would cost on people’s bills.
Higher prices to get away from fossil fuels
PNM argues that it needs to bump prices up to cover costs sustained in its renewable energy transition. The utility has moved away from multiple fossil fuel plants, including the San Juan Generating Station, the Four Corners Generating Station and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
But how long the utility stayed at some of those plants is a point of controversy for those fighting the price increase.
Many members of the public reiterated the arguments of environmental organizations that New Mexicans shouldn’t be held accountable for poor decisions the utility made in sticking with fossil fuel facilities longer than it should have.
“I understand the need for utilities to cover their costs, but not because of a bad business decision that wasn’t my responsibility,” Destiny Krupnick said.
Krupnick, like a few others in the public comment, said a price raise could perpetuate the cycle of poverty for New Mexicans and asked the PRC to consider the far-reaching consequences it would have on vulnerable communities.
Krupnick said she’s experienced financial hardships herself. A 20-year-old who’s been experiencing homelessness over the summer, she said her situation is already precarious and every dollar she has is carefully allocated toward necessities like food or health care.
“Any additional financial burden, especially higher utilities, is a blow that could push me back onto the streets,” she said. “It’s a reality that me and many others cannot bear.”
People also spoke up against PNM’s request to increase profits that shareholders can get. They again voiced similar arguments to environmental groups that this is a guaranteed investor profit PNM is making New Mexicans pay for, though the utility has denied that.
Ray Ellen Smith, president of the advocacy organization Indivisible Albuquerque, said she understands that there needs to be a profit margin but investment risks have gone down or are covered by other rate increases.
“A decrease should be put in place rather than an increase,” she said.
A few people didn’t comment on the price raise at all, instead focusing on the negative environmental impacts that PNM’s fossil fuel stations have caused.
Chili Yazzie, logged into Zoom from Shiprock, said waste from the Four Corners plant has contaminated irrigation water that Indigenous farmers depend on. He said the future generation’s welfare will suffer because of the environmental damage being done.
“Is it not clear the kind of future that we are leaving them?” he said. “They will suffer the brunt of our rapid and inconsiderate exploitation of the earth.”
He said he stands with New Energy Economy’s position, a sentiment reiterated by others at the hearing, and asked the PRC to do what it needs to do.
Eleanor Smith (Diné), also from Shiprock, spoke about the negative health consequences like cancer and asthma she’s seen her family and neighbors experience, something she believes is a result of the Four Corners plant.
She said the PRC needs to represent the public interest, which “should be to support truly clean, renewable and sustainable energy rather than perpetuating the deadly fossil fuel industry.”
It’s poor judgment and insensitive of PNM to try to increase prices when New Mexicans are already struggling to make ends meet, Smith said.
Potential to save $9 every month for a year
The closure of the San Juan Generating Station ties closely into this rate base increase request.
PNM started shutting down the San Juan facility in 2017 and fully decommissioned it last year. Part of the shutdown plan included an agreement between the utility and the PRC that PNM would decrease customer rates and sell bonds to cover investments made in the station.
That didn’t happen. Instead, PNM announced in early 2022 that it would sell bonds in 2024.
Sandoval, the PNM spokesperson, said the utility always planned to sell bonds when its prices changed, which the pandemic delayed.
He said PNM was going to ask the PRC in 2020 for a price increase but waited until 2022 because of the financial hardships COVID-19 put on New Mexicans.
The state commissioners didn’t agree with this change in plans, so they ordered PNM to give New Mexicans credits for improperly charging them for the San Juan coal plant.
PNM appealed that with the New Mexico Supreme Court, and New Mexicans have continued to pay for the San Juan Generating Station.
A recent settlement filed could change that, where PNM agreed to issue $115 million in rate credits to New Mexicans. That would amount to monthly savings of about $9.28 — roughly 11% — on utility bills over the course of a year, according to the PNM.
That would add up to over $100 New Mexicans could keep in their bank accounts, based on the PNM estimates.
Ellison said the New Mexico Supreme Court has to decide whether to return the case to the PRC, which would give commissioners the ability to approve this settlement or not.
A few people on Thursday asked the commissioners to approve it if it does come their way.
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