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Jul. 6th, 2007

Break The Grip Field Trip

Tracking the El Paso Electric Rate Case has revealed legal procedures, confidentiality rules and utility company control over the process that curtails public participation and consumer advocacy. I have discussed these issues with PRC Commissioners Sandy Jones and Jason Marks, as well as, Chief of Staff, Danny Mayfield and Consumer Relations Division Chief, Juan Rios. These are the decision makers who could make the PRC more user friendly. They genuinely seem to agree with the need for change, especially newcomer and “people person” Sandy Jones. But they are reticent and say they are constrained by the legal department, PRC rules, budgetary limitations and the political power of regulated utility companies in New Mexcio. For several months I have written posts about public access and input to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC).

Over at Break The Grip, Bill Althouse takes us on a “citizen visit” to the PRC in Santa Fe. Check out the trials and tribulations encountered by clicking HERE

Jul. 4th, 2007

Tea With Steve

On an hellaciously warm afternoon in one of the genteel homes that grace the turn of the century Alameda Depot Historic District of Las Cruces, a parlor meeting of invited residents from the Alameda Depot and the more modest, but older Mesquite Historic District was held. The guest of honor was Congressman Stevan Pearce, Republican, 2nd District and Hobbs native.

Standing around before the Congressman addressed the group, was a local historian who claimed lineage to the last hangman of Las Cruces. He informed the homeowner-a retired gentleman who said, “I do the yard work around here.” when introducing himself - that his house was built on the former location of the Park Hotel. This area, once Rio Grande bottom land, was developed after the railroad was built in 1881, hence the need for a hotel to service passenger travelers.

One might have expected the topic of focus to be the Federal Courthouse being built between the Alameda and Mesquite Historic Districts, the Downtown Restoration or other concerns of the immediate area. However, Congressman Pearce launched into a lengthy discussion of Native Americans of Eastern New Mexico, their arrowheads and his efforts to provide a place to conserve and display them in Hobbs. Pearce is concerned about triggering an archeological study, considering these studies to be “problematic, not functional.” Asked about the effects of the Spaceport, Pearce expressed the hope that it would improve the “wage structure” in our area. He said New Mexico is on the “low end of income and the high end of problems” such as drug use and teen pregnancy. Projects such as the Space Port and the Nuclear Fuel Enrichment Facility being built in Eunice will help, he said. Pearce is enthusiastic about privatizing space travel and believes that “everything originates outside government.” He said that private companies did in two years what it took NASA twenty years. “NASA just cannot do it” he said.

Pearce responded to a question about education by discussing an under performing school in his hometown of Hobbs where, according to the Congressman, the Board of Education asked for a volunteer to run the school, circumvented the union and “ran off the teachers who didn’t belong in a classroom”. Problem solved. Pearce said that China and India are training engineers and taking our jobs. Public school children, with the exception of his grandson, lack discipline, “discipline is not in their lexicon”.

Top Donors to Congressman Pearce include Yates Petroleum, Marbob Energy Group, Mack Energy and Exxon Mobil reflecting his business conections as owner of an oilfield services company. His energy policy, in his own words is “build” (more oil refineries) and “drill” (for more oil and gas) including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Otero Mesa grasslands. Pearce asserted that renewable energy is 20 to 30 years away and that we don’t have the technology for nuclear power development. “We’re in a nuclear straight jacket we don’t have the capability and we’re ten years from commissioning a plant” he said. Pearce is opposed to international efforts to stem global warming because it amounts to “Europe pressuring us to unilaterally punish our economy”. He opposes efforts in Congress to reduce our use of coal because that would result in “China taking more of our jobs”.

Steve Pearce, a man who relies upon his “value set and faith”, says we are in a “dark period of world history” experiencing a “darkness of human spirit”. According to him, Europe will not stand up to Islamic extremists and only American exceptionalism can save world freedom. He parroted the White House talking points including, “If we leave Iraq the terrorists will follow us.” On a visit to Israel, Pearce says he was told by ? that if we leave Iraq, friendly governments in the region will fall, the terrorists will attack America and “the world will be plunged into depression.“

While stating that the “immigration system is broken beyond belief” Pearce explained his vote against the Immigration Bill saying that Americans are “neck deep in anger” over immigration. “We are polarized, the Parties are fractured and we are divided rural versus urban.” He added “the Federal Government has created almost every problem we have with immigration.”

The Congressman asked for veterans to raise their hands and said “I was serving in Vietnam when our government started abandoning us and I tell my colleagues in Congress not to abandon our troops in Iraq”. He did not solicit the veterans, or for that matter, any of the others for their views on the war. With that Congressman Pearce concluded his bleak assessment of the future.

Jul. 1st, 2007

Clean Energy Act 2007 Survives New Mexican Assault

“The San Francisco Democrats want to run cars with wind”, said Congressman Steve Pearce in a statement opposing the Clean Energy Act of 2007 which would repeal tax breaks for the oil industry and order the Bush Administration to collect past royalties on federal oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Pearce wants to preserve corporate welfare for oil and gas extraction by large energy companies in the form of tax breaks for Big Oil awarded by Congress in 2004, at a time of unprecedented profits in the industry. Despite Pearce’s objection the Bill passed the House.

New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Dominici used procedural votes and filibuster to preserve corporate tax breaks and prevent collection of royalty payments on Federal Leases in the Gulf of Mexico. For good measure, Dominici slapped down the renewable energy standard as well. This provision would have required electric utility companies to include a small percentage of renewable energy in their sales. The standard was reduced to an almost insignificant 11% by 2020, but with Dominici in charge the provision was eliminated. New Mexico Senator and Energy Committee CHAIRMAN Jeff Bingaman whined “I don’t know how to pursue it any further”. After being gutted the so-called Clean Energy Act of 2007 passed the Senate.

The final Clean Energy Act of 2007 which will emerge from the Conference Committee will likely contain provisions that promote biofuels, energy star appliances, energy storage technology, efficiency in federal buildings, aid to local governments, a media campaign and maybe, just maybe WIND CARS!

Jun. 24th, 2007

Breaking The Grip in Southern New Mexico

“Ben Luce has been instrumental in the writing of laws and regulations that are the foundation of New Mexico’s transition to a clean energy economy. He is an expert on new energy technologies and the policies that promote them.”
While I am encouraged by some clean energy policy in the State, here in Southern New Mexico, energy is under the firm control of the oil and gas industry, nuclear reprocessing and waste interests, El Paso Electric Corporation of Texas and Tri State Generation and Transmission of Denver. The state of clean energy in Southern New Mexico makes a mockery of Governor Richardson’s statements on the campaign trail. Breaking the grip of corporate control of energy is a prerequisite to clean energy progress in Southern New Mexico.

Jun. 20th, 2007

Commissioner Sandy Jones Brings PRC to TorC

On Wednesday, June 20, Public Regulation Commissioner, Sandy Jones and several PRC officials met with the public at the Sierra County Commission Chambers in Truth or Consequences. The purpose of meeting was to establish access to Santa Fe “decision makers”, Sandy Jones emphasized in an article in the The Herald and in a news release on the much improved PRC web site.

Jones represents Southwest New Mexico on the Public Regulation Commission which among other things is responsible for implementing energy legislation and policy. When Commissioner Jones took office, the PRC toll free number was not working, the Commission was not issuing press releases and the El Paso Electric Rate Case was being decided in Santa Fe - hundreds of miles from his Southern New Mexico constituents. Now there is toll free access via 1-888-4-ask-prc, a newly hired Public Information Officer, John Arnold, issuing press releases and a rate hearing was held in Las Cruces. In Truth or Consequences, Wednesday, Commissioner Jones, PRC Chief of Staff Danny Mayfield, Consumer Relations Division Chief, Juan Rios and Elizabeth Martin, Executive Assistant to Sandy Jones responded to questions about including a public comment capability on the Commission’s website, internet availability of audio and transcript archives of PRC meetings and the role of public comment in rate case hearings.

This first effort at bringing Santa Fe PRC decision makers to Southern New Mexico shows great promise in shining light on utility policy through public access. As Commissioner Jones stated in the Herald, "It has to be done."

Jun. 9th, 2007

Where Does Electricity Produced 12 Miles Southwest of Las Cruces, N.M. Go?

Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the State’s largest public electric utility, serving north central New Mexico and certain other areas in the state, is proposing a rate increase to raise 60.9 million dollars in new revenue. PNM says that 30% of the new revenue will be used to double generating capacity at the company’s Afton gas powered Generating Plant, south of Las Cruces. The new generation will be needed to meet increasing demand. At the El Paso Electric rate increase hearing in Las Cruces, the Public Regulation Commission expressed concern about how EPE would meet future demand in Las Cruces since the the Texas utility is not building new generating capacity and has made little progress in energy efficiency. So why has PNM and not EPE built a new plant in fast growing Las Cruces?

To understand this arrangement, go back to March 8, 2001, the day New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson delayed and ultimately ended electricity deregulation in New Mexico. Previously, the legislature had jumped on the deregulation band wagon passing the Electric Utility Restructuring Act of 1999. After the Enron/California energy crisis, the legislature reversed itself with Senate Bill 266 which was signed into law. This returned New Mexico consumers to a regulated industry in which power can only be purchased from the local monopoly. However, an amendment known as the PNM Amendment allowed regulated utilities to “construct unregulated generation for sale on the wholesale market.” Utility companies could sell electricity on the open market for the highest price available, while limiting consumers to the local utility.

Building a gas powered generating plant south of Las Cruces, the Afton Plant, was an attractive investment for PNM. As a “merchant” plant, Afton, using local water and gas resources to generate power, sells electricity to the highest bidder on the wholesale market. However to meet increasing base load electricity needs in north New Mexico, PNM’s current plan is to double capacity at Afton and transmit the power to Albuquerque, bypassing Las Cruces.

In the electricity industry “retail wheeling” refers to the ability of an energy consumer to select their own energy supplier, or "wheel in" energy from one of two or more different suppliers. Since the repeal of electricity deregulation, retail wheeling is not available to the consumer in New Mexico but is freely engaged in by the utilities. Hence electrons traveling north on PNM's lines from Las Cruces pass electrons southbound on El Paso Electric lines from Phoenix. Affordable efficient energy, you can’t there from here.

Jun. 2nd, 2007

Energy Resource Rich Site Approved For Vistas at Presidio Development In Las Cruces

Las Cruces City Council has approved annexation and development of thousands of acres on the East Mesa. Vistas at Presidio will be built over a vast geothermal field and under the nation’s second most intense solar radiation. New Mexico State University has decades of experience in research and implementation of geothermal and solar energy. For over 20 years NMSU used geothermal energy to heat dormitories, classrooms and provide hot water for showers and the indoor pool. The University has been generating solar electricity and testing solar equipment for decades. Prominent experts and consultants in renewable energy live and work in Las Cruces. John Wiles with the Southwest Technology Development Institute consults with local and state governments developing solar energy. James Witcher is a geologist with nearly three decades of experience in geothermal exploration and development.

Governor Richardson has issued Executive Orders, the New Mexico Legislature has passed tax incentives and the Public Regulation Commission has passed rules to promote locally generated renewable energy. Citizens in Las Cruces have sent letters and e-mails to the Mayor and City Councilors. They have spoken at City Council meetings, have met with the City Manager and the City Attorney. In addition they have written letters and articles urging the City to promote renewable energy. The South West Energy Alliance held an Energy Fair on the Mall in Las Cruces and a lecture series at South West Environmental Center. Clearly, Las Cruces is a preeminent location in the nation for development of renewable energy resources. Yet, these resources are not currently being used by local government, or being incorporated into fast growing commercial and residential building. Renewable energy resources do not appear to be on the radar of local planning, codes and zoning.

The Las Cruces municipality has a market driven administration. Perhaps market forces will drag developers kicking and screaming into leading the City officials toward participating in the New Mexico that Governor and candidate Richardson touts as a state that has done the most to “promote renewable energy and fight global warming."

May. 31st, 2007

What Is Keeping Southern New Mexico From Leading The State In Renewable Energy?

State governments are taking the lead promoting clean energy in the United States. Twenty two states have passed Renewable Energy Standards mandating clean energy generation and sales. Implementing these laws is a complex legal process that takes place in state public utility commissions. In New Mexico utility companies submit their plans for purchasing renewable energy to the New Mexico Pubic Regulation Commission (PRC) for approval. The five elected commissioners make decisions based on information from PRC staff, utility attorneys and interveners represented by attorneys. Southern New Mexico interveners include the City of Las Cruces, New Mexico State University and the Department of Defense. The “testimony” is contained in legal briefs and is subject to cross examination. Access by the pubic is limited, public written comment has been ruled inadmissible and PRC hearing transcripts are confidential. The Commissioners act as judges when they issue decisions in hearing cases, legislators when they make rules and regulations and executives when they issue resolutions. Only the Governor has a salary higher than a Pubic Regulation Commissioner. Lets look at what this process is achieving in Southern New Mexico when it comes to generating clean, local renewable energy.

No New Renewable Energy in Southern New Mexico until 2008: Three years after passage of New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) in 2004, El Paso Electric’s Renewable Energy Procurement Plan for 2007 indicates the utility will meet the mandate by purchasing wind energy credits from Pubic Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) which buys the wind energy from Florida Power and Light resulting in no new renewable energy in Southern New Mexico and adding no diversity to EPE energy sources. According to the EPE web site, the utility will start buying electricity from a soon to be constructed biomass plant in Dona Ana County in 2008, four years after passage of the RES law. In addition, the utility will meet its 2008 mandate by purchasing electricity from a photovoltaic installation at the South West Environmental Center (SWEC) in Las Cruces.

You can count the number of homes with grid connected solar electric systems in Las Cruces on one hand. The intent of the RES is to encourage investment in renewable energy by helping investors and homeowners pay down their investment. The installation at SWEC was paid for by a Legislative Capital Outlay and is being installed by the Institute for Energy and the Environment at NMSU. No home owner or business investment was required, so none was encouraged or paid down. Payments for the electricity generated will be income to the non profit organization. In the 2007 Session, the New Mexico State Legislature strengthened the State’s Renewable Energy Standard to require 20% renewable energy by 2020. The New Mexico PRC has initiated a proceeding to update the rules for implementing clean energy.

John Wiles of the Southwest Technology Development Institute at NMSU who writes a regular column for Home Power Magazine described two successful national solar programs-Germany and Japan and explained why the U.S. has failed to promote solar energy. Germany is the world leader in solar energy. Germany passed a national “feed in tariff”, a generous payment to anyone who generates solar electricity. In Germany a homeowner, small town, business owner, farmer or corporation can make an 8% tax free return on solar investment. Consequently, Germany has a thriving solar industry employing Germans in sales, installation and manufacturing. Japan on the other hand chose an educational approach to changing the public mindset. Wiles was in Japan and witnessed the government’s successful campaign to promote solar energy in movies, TV shows, on bus placards and taxi top ad carriers. The nation wide education campaign program was so successful that the 30% rebate program was phased out. What has prevented the U.S. and Southern New Mexico from leading the world in renewable energy? John Wiles suggested: OIL BASED POLITICS.

May. 27th, 2007

Lights Out Las Cruces

Located about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix, Palo Verde is the nation's largest nuclear plant, supplying electricity to some 4 million customers including residents of Las Cruces, New Mexico. El Paso Electric owns a 15.8% interest in each of the three nuclear generating units at Palo Verde and gets 52% of its energy from nuclear power. Keep in mind that “Palo Verde has been plagued by outages and equipment problems for the past several years.” according to Associated Press reports in April, 2007.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Mohamed Atta, mastermind of the attack on the World Trade Center Towers, said that the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant was the initial priority target and that the terrorists erroneously assumed that it could not be penetrated by a crashing airplane. However, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the spent nuclear fuel pools at Indian Point are in Butler Shacks, which are not hardened, and no more protected than a K Mart.

On April 9, 2007, Mohammad Alavi, a former engineer at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport when he arrived on a flight from Iran. Alavi has been charged with taking computer access codes and software to Iran including details of plant control rooms and reactors. Although he is only charged with trade embargo violation, Alavi is being held without bail. Arizona Public Service Co., which operates Palo Verde says they now have changed procedures to prohibit former employees from accessing software when they leave the company. No such procedure was in place when Alavi quit last August. According to the FBI, the software contractor for Palo Verde was not notified when Alavi resigned, so they didn't try to restrict his access. Consequently, the software system was accessed using the Palo Verde user ID in Tehran.

The Mayor of Las Cruces and five of six City Councilors have voted in favor of a development that could double the population of the City. There was no discussion of how these homes will be powered and whether they will be built to energy efficiency standards. Reducing demand with distributed generation of solar electricity and solar hot water was not discussed. EPE promotes all electric homes, refrigerated air conditioning, and gives discounts for energy intensive electric heating. Without changes, the demand for electricity much of it transmitted from the Palo Verde Station will skyrocket.

An international electrical expert speaking in Las Cruces said that a study by the International Electronics and Electrical Engineering Association (IEEE) determined that electrical generation and transmission is the infrastructure most vulnerable to terrorist attack. “If Palo Verde goes down, its lights out Las Cruces.” he said.

May. 22nd, 2007

Getting the New Mexico Legislature “In Hot Water”

When the New Mexico State Legislature passed a Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, geothermal energy was excluded. “Geothermal should receive a production tax credit, the New Mexico Legislature needs educating” according to Jim Witcher, a geologist and geothermal expert. Witcher has testified before the U.S. Congress as an expert witness on geothermal energy and says “I don’t understand why the Bush administration has ended the geothermal program at the Department of Energy.”

Witcher points out, “The focus in NM should be on direct-use (using hot water at the geothermal site) in the industrial and agriculture sectors.“ The economic potential of direct use far exceeds that of electricity production, is more water friendly and has real energy cost savings compared to fossil fuels. Arizona has a geothermal direct use Production Tax Credit based on Btu (heat production) that according to Witcher could be a model for the New Mexico law. Current geothermal uses in New Mexico are primarily greenhouses and aqua culture (fish farming). There is increasing awareness of the potential for geothermal heat pump applications (space heating and cooling) and using geothermal energy in the manufacture of biofuels and other agricultural applications (mushroom culture, fruit and vegetable drying and food processing).

The potential for New Mexico’s low temperature resources in industrial uses such as cooking curing and drying would replace the need for generating and transmitting fossil fuel energy. “I think the BTU production credit for geothermal is a good idea” agreed Ben Luce, Director of the New Mexico Coalition for Clean and Affordable Energy. The Coalition helps draft clean energy legislation and works with the Governor, the Legislature and the Public Regulation Commission to pass and implement laws. In past legislative sessions, the Coalition has been successful in collaborating with experts like Jim Witcher in educating legislators and moving clean energy bills to the Governor’s desk.

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