By BRIAN HARRIS
The light switch in the room where you’re reading this is part of the world’s largest machine, the electric grid.
In New Mexico, this grid is owned by three investor-owned utilities and 16 electric co-ops.
Our telecommunications networks are similarly structured. In both cases, the big firms operate along the more populated Rio Grande corridor, while the coops handle the more sparsely populated areas.
There are two inescapable laws of networks – 1) profitability is a function of population density, and 2) only one company will build these systems because these networks cannot compete profitably.
It’s why utility networks are called “natural monopolies” and why we regulate them, to make sure they serve the public and because they are an essential input to all the other things we want to do.
In the coming years utilities will be a key component in New Mexico’s economic recovery.
During the isolation of the pandemic, these electric and telecom networks connect us. Even with our anxiety, they let us reach out to seek solace.
As we started learning a few months ago, change comes quickly and sometimes brutally. These networks support us and make us more resilient. We need these networks and we need them to be robust, stable, and sustainable.
Right now, the world is changing with stomach churning speed.
That’s why the recent PRC vote blocking construction of two new utility scale solar plus battery projects in northern New Mexico is so baffling. These projects are not only needed for our state’s transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, they are part of the lowest cost portfolio for replacing the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station.
They held the promise for as many as 700 construction jobs for communities hit hard by fossil fuel closures, and a start toward achieving our dream of inexpensive electricity that doesn’t poison the air we breathe.
What’s even stranger is that the majority voting against these projects went against the advice of the Commission’s Hearing Examiners, while justifying their votes by saying they wanted to hear from the Hearing Examiners about the rest of the San Juan replacement portfolio! The contracts for these two projects expired and if they are available later, it will cost more. This poorly reasoned vote will cost PNM customers money that we can’t afford.
We’ve seen this too many times before. Parties put in months of work and develop a record for sound decision-making. Then career politicians on the Commission swoop in at the last minute and want to make changes. They haven’t attended hearings, they haven’t read the testimony, and now they want to slow the process down. Or even worse they will end up stopping these projects that were the result of a massive effort, requiring bids and commitments from a wide variety of businesses. The parties representing consumers and environmental interests all supported them. The professionals did their job, but the politicians derailed the process at the last minute and spiked it, out of continuing hostility to renewable energy.
Because of this unpredictable, unprofessional environment, I decided to run for the PRC in District 3, encompassing much of Northern New Mexico. I understand how the Commission works, having been a staff economist for the PRC; an assistant attorney general advocating on behalf of the ratepayer interest; and advisor to one of the current commissioners (who didn’t join this ill-advised order). I understand the process and the role of the PRC.
Utility regulation is complicated and sometimes contentious, but at the end of the day we all want to keep the lights on, the bits flowing, and create a predictable process for companies that want to invest in our state and provide new, clean energy jobs. For too long we’ve trusted the difficult task of regulating utilities to career politicians. We can no longer afford that. I am a proud technocrat and I hope I can earn your trust and vote.
Brian Harris is an attorney in Santa Fe with close to 30 years experience in telecommunications and advocating for the ratepayer interest. brianharrisforprc.com