After several delays in the process, New Mexico’s community solar program is ramping up with the 45 selected projects that the state is working on getting interconnection agreements in place to allow the electricity generated at the arrays to be sent to customers using existing utility-owned transmission and distribution lines.
Kevin Cray, mountain west senior director for Coalition for Community Solar Access, presented an update to the interim Science, Technology & Telecommunications Committee during its meeting Thursday in Santa Rosa.
In his presentation, Cray outlined why community solar is necessary and said that he expects progress on the selected projects to pick up in pace. According to the presentation, rooftop solar is not a possibility for most people. To get rooftop solar, the person must first own their house. Secondly, many companies require credit scores of at least 700. Cray said that only 34% of houses qualify for rooftop solar.
Community solar can help fill those gaps by providing renewable, clean energy to people who cannot qualify for rooftop solar such as renters, people living in apartments and those with low credit scores.
The Community Solar Act and the subsequent rules passed by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission paved the way for developers to build solar arrays. Customers can then subscribe to receive a portion, or all, of their power from the solar facility. These subscriptions can often help the customers save money on their electric bills.
Cray said these small solar arrays can be built on private property, including through lease agreements that allow them to be built on a portion of a farm. In that way, he said community solar can benefit local landowners.
The law passed in 2021 and the PRC hired a third party administrator, InClime, to oversee it. In May, InClime announced which projects had been selected to be built in New Mexico as part of the community solar program.
The 2021 legislation limited the amount of community solar that could initially be built. This was done to avoid overwhelming the grid and as a pilot program to allow the state to determine how to move forward.
Developers showed an overwhelming interest in building arrays in New Mexico. InClime received more than 400 applications for projects in the state, totaling 1,700 megawatts. The current cap for community solar is 200 megawatts statewide.
Cray said that the initial cap of 200 megawatts was “largely an effort to crawl before you walk and before you run.”
He said the PRC will likely begin a process of looking at the community solar program and determining what lessons can be learned.
Cray also said that there is the opportunity to increase the number of megawatts of community solar in New Mexico by raising the statewide cap.
He said the legislature can step in and require an increase in the amount of community solar, but “at this point, I think the ball is essentially [in] the PRC’s hands to see what they would like to do with the program and how they will want to expand it in the future.”
When asked about the 200 megawatt cap, Cray explained that if too much solar capacity is placed on the grid, it can lead to problems with interconnection. That can include reaching the limit for how much electricity the infrastructure can handle.
The Community Solar Act does require the PRC to set a new cap after the initial pilot period.
With the hundreds of projects that were not approved, Cray said there are developers waiting for the next phase. He described those projects that were not approved as essentially being in limbo until additional capacity is added to the community solar program.