From the Archive: A David and Goliath Fight to Tap World Class Solar — Episode 75 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 25 Apr 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
With 75 episodes and five years of ILSR’s Local Energy Rules podcast, we’ve found plenty of great conversation gems in our archive. We’ll continue to highlight some of these past episodes by re-releasing them with a “From the Archive” label and providing our listeners with where-are-they-now updates for new and dedicated subscribers alike.

In early 2014, John Farrell, director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy initiative, hosted a conversation with Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, about how the city of Santa Fe’s incumbent and monopoly electric utility Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) was failing to take advantage of the city’s abundant local, solar resources, while residents pushed the city and utility to implement more local climate solutions and distributed solar.

Today, New Energy Economy and residents of Santa Fe continue to push for local, clean energy and greater control over the city’s energy future. Still, their earlier efforts outlined in this episode reveal important strategies communities can take organize a campaign for public ownership.

Listen to this episode, and explore more highlights and resources, below — including a transcript of the conversation and more updates about what has happened in Santa Fe between then and now.

 

Mariel Nanasi: The city of Santa Fe exports $10 million to Wall Street every year in profits. If that money went back into the city’s budget, it could be used for schools or parks or education or whatever the city decided. Okay.
Marie Donahue: In a recent Local Energy Rules podcast episode entitled “Don’t-Miss Opportunity for Local Choice in Landmark Carbon-Free Bills,” released this spring we featured perspective from Mariel Nanasi, New Mexico-based clean energy advocate and Executive Director of nonprofit New Energy Economy, about how statewide renewable energy legislation in New Mexico could best support local clean energy action.

In this week’s episode of Local Energy Rules, we dig into our podcast archive, to replay our inaugural interview with Mariel Nanasi released in early 2014. In this earlier conversation, we learn how the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, first launched an ongoing campaign to municipalize its electric utility in the hopes of increasing energy efficiency investments, expanding local renewable energy production, and cutting its residents’ energy bills.

Today, Santa Fe’s efforts to municipalize the city’s electricity provider continue, while the area’s incumbent, investor-owned utility “Public Service Company of New Mexico” or P-N-M for short, continues to fight these grassroots efforts and exert its monopoly influence. Although not much has changed in the past five years, as PNM continues to increase rates, make measly investments in renewable energy, and lobby in ways that tilt state policy to benefit its shareholders, there are important lessons in this episode about how communities can push back on powerful interests like PNM to transform the local energy system.

John Farrell: Welcome to the program. Mariel!
Mariel Nanasi: Thank you for having me.
John Farrell: I’m really curious about the motivation in Santa Fe to switch from a private electric company to a city owned a municipal utility to public power. Is it reliability which motivated the switch and Winter Park Florida, or is it more about clean energy like in Boulder, Colorado?
Mariel Nanasi: I think that it’s, it’s closer to the Boulder Colorado model. The current incumbent utility in New Mexico is called public service company of New Mexico. PNM is what we call it, and it’s a regulated monopoly that relies on 60% coal, 20% nuclear and some gas, a little bit of wind and 1% solar in a state that has the Sun Zia as it’s a symbol on its flag. And some people refer to the solar potential in New Mexico as being world class solar and that it’s the Saudi Arabia of solar. And we have not taken advantage of that potential. And I like to say to, to people, you know, I look at my kids and I look at them in their eyes and I don’t say, Oh, you have so much potential and leave it at that. I say I want them to actualize or maximize their potential. And we have abundant solar and wind resources in New Mexico and the the, the monopoly, the electric monopoly has failed to take advantage of that and to our disadvantage.

And coal is the single greatest driver of climate change, but it also has enormous local health impacts. PNM had 60,000 air quality violations and they spew into our air, into the Commons, which belongs to all of us, not just to PNM. They spew 12 million tons of carbon dioxide and lots of other hazardous pollutants and toxic carcinogens, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides and mercury. It’s really having an enormous local health impact. We, I’ll just say this one last thing that we did a study last year. Um, we commissioned a study from the New York University, uh, school of medicine and it found that PNM had externalized costs of $240 million in just the last five years in healthcare costs. And that was asthma and, um, and hospital visits and lung disease and heart disease. They’re not paying for the waste, but the public is.

John Farrell: So I clearly hear a strong environmental motivation. Now, what I thought was interesting in reading a bit about your efforts in Santa Fe is that you had almost 2000 people in the city sign a petition asking the city to look into forming a public power entity, a municipal utility. And this study, which came out last December is the result of that petition and it says the city could get more than double its renewable energy. It could double energy efficiency savings, get more local energy and have lower electric rates. Were you surprised by the results?
Mariel Nanasi: I was encouraged by themselves. Um, I think that while it’s true that a, we want to do this for climate change and environmental reasons, I also believe that it has, and this study evidenced that we have the potential to create leading edge innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy and related economic development. That’s some of what this study showed or interested in continuing to stabilize rates, um, but also, um, to create competitive advantages and jobs, um, that would come with a public power effort. Um, so it’s very exciting that the Santa Fe community college is graduating young people with solar certificates and then they’re getting jobs as solar installers and the installers in Santa Fe quadrupled their employment practices and that has real local benefits. And those people that are not spending their money on Wall Street, those people are spending their money in Santa Fe. And there’s a local multiplier effect that has enormous potential for our area. But also, if the money wasn’t going to high executive pay and bonuses and to Wall Street, frankly, the city of Santa Fe exports $10 million to Wall Street every year in profits. If that money went back into the city’s budget, it could be used for schools or parks or education or whatever the city decided. Okay.
John Farrell: So between the economic benefits, the opportunities around affordability, local control, it seems like this study is really making this case for public power, a very simple one, but nearby in Las Cruces, uh, you know, they failed after a 10 year effort to form a city owned utility in the 1990s. Is that having an impact on the conversation in Santa Fe?
Mariel Nanasi: Yes, but can I say one thing that’s really important? Um, and then answer that question. But it goes to this, the heart of what you’re asking. And, and that is that PNM used to own the water utility in Santa Fe and the city of Santa Fe bought it 10 years ago and it is now one of the most respected water utilities in the entire country, mostly for the efforts on conservation and education or education about conservation. And we’ve done amazing work on reducing consumption. It is now profitable for the city of Santa Fe. So we have a local example that highlights our ability to put our values to work here. But back to your question, last Christmas is really interesting. We had a forum about a month and a half ago and one of the people who came was the attorney who represented the city of Las Cruces and its bid to municipalize or take over the public power.

And what happened was everything was on track and they were $30 million short of finalizing the deal. And what happened was that El Paso electric ran a candidate who was opposed to their public power efforts. And then they had to have a vote on the last $30 million as part of the bid. And that candidate voted against it and it literally lost by one vote. And her message to the entire public was, this is not about, is it better for Santa Fe? In fact, she said, the answer is clear. Sort of like the beginning premise of your question. She said though, political will, and we’ve seen this happen just now in boulder, where Xcel tries another way, uses more money, uses a nonprofit, run new candidates, we’ll do all the things that they want to do because they are fighting for their life. They’re fighting for their businesses life.

And so we expect do shady things or we’ll do everything in their power and they will ask their friends at Edison Electric Institute to help them create phony nonprofits and try to pay off people. I mean, this is part of the modus operandi. If you look at the history of efforts to quash public power, um, and you might, your listeners might know that there was actually a textbook written just about how to defeat public power efforts. So why it failed in Las Cruces is something that we’re looking at. We are definitely cognizant that P and m is already talking to the mayoral candidates who are running in in the next election, so this is part of the power scheme. This is part of the David and Goliath fight.

Marie Donahue: You’re listening to an interview from the Local Energy Rules archive with Mariel Nanasi, Executive Director of Santa Fe-based New Energy Economy.

Please stay-tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our Energy Democracy initiative director John Farrell.

John Farrell: Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations.

Every year ILSR’s small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to ILSR.org and click on the Donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power.

Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.

John Farrell: So what is the next step for the city? You know, you covered, and I have also written about the process in boulder, which was many years in building before even the first vote to pursue a municipal utility. In 2011 and like you said, they had to defend against a utility funded effort to set them back here in 2013. What’s the next step in Santa Fe?
Mariel Nanasi: Well, we are doing our due diligence and I will leave it at that. Um, but it definitely doing research. One of the things I will divulge is that we are, are uh, working on, uh, what I’m calling a lessons learned, um, from the immune municipal utility. Um, the water you meant municipal utility, um, purchase. Um, and we’re going to be providing that kind of research and to our city counselors and to our county commissioners. And when we launch a public campaign, which we hope to do in 2014 if we have all our research in place, there’s always more research to be done, but some of it is about management structures and best practices. We did a best practices piece on Austin, which is one of the best, if not the best green municipal utilities that are out there and learning about what they’ve done and how they’ve gotten there.

They set out some standards and they’ve already exceeded their carbon reduction goals. So what we want to do is set out what we would like to see in this municipal utility work to make sure that we have all the research done and then push our city councilors and county commissioners to vote and they have to take a vote to do two things to agree a to work together, which they’ve also done in the past, including a recent one around securing water and creating water durability for Santa Fe. Um, but then also to use their authority and eminent domain to take over both the poles and wires of PNM and also their customer base vote will happen eventually within the city council and County Commission. But we really have a lot of education and outreach to do in this city and that’s what we are looking to form and then elevate.

John Farrell: Well Mariel, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
Mariel Nanasi: Thank you so much. It’s actually the most inspirational work I’m doing. I think that there’s a real hunger and appetite. There’s sort of like a low grade fever going on with people’s worry around climate and this is an inspirational and aspirational effort that really at the heart of it is love of place and energy democracy and that’s why it’s just so, so fun and exciting to be involved in.
Marie Donahue: Thanks for taking the time to listen to our archived interview with Mariel Nanasi of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based nonprofit New Energy Economy. You can learn more about their work at W-W-W-dot-NEW-ENERGY-ECONOMY-DOT-ORG.

You can read about what other strategies cities like Santa Fe can pursue to invest in local, clean energy by exploring ILSR’s interactive Community Power Toolkit available on our website at ilsr.org — that’s I-L-S-R.org.

Be sure to explore the more than 70 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast and tune in, now every two weeks, for new conversations about local, clean energy. In our next episode, we’ll be featuring the small town of Grand Marais, Minnesota, as part of our special series called Voices of 100% — where we highlight how cities are making progress toward ambitious 100 percent renewable energy commitments.

Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


Santa Fe’s Municipalization Fight

At the time ILSR released its original interview in 2014, Nanasi and her team at the New Energy Economy — a New Mexico-based nonprofit building a renewable energy future to support the health of both their environment and communities — were campaigning to convince their city council and county commissioners to vote on the issue of a public electric utility.

“While it’s true that we want to do this for climate change and environmental reasons, I also believe… that we have the potential to create leading edge innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy and related economic development,” Nanasi explained of the motivation to push for a city-owned utility in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

New Energy Economy’s municipalization campaign proved effective at community engagement and organizing to promote these efforts. A petition from New Energy Economy asking the city to look into forming a municipal utility resulted in a city-commissioned report released in December of 2014. That report, which drew on lessons learned from the city’s water utility purchase and best practices from other cities including Austin, Texas, that municipalized their electric utilities, showed how the city could double it renewable energy and energy efficiency savings and have lower electric rates by switching to a municipal utility.


Learn even more about the City of Santa Fe’s electric utility municipalization report in the original post about this podcast episode. Explore how other cities including Boulder, Colo., and Decorah, Iowa, have campaigned for public ownership in the ILSR Energy Democracy archive of municipalization efforts.  

What Has Changed in Santa Fe?

In the five years since ILSR recorded our earlier episode, the fight for a city-owned utility and more renewable energy in Santa Fe has had its ups and downs.

In January 2015, the Santa Fe’s city attorney said that the city could not force PNM to sell its infrastructure. At that time, the company stated unequivocally that its eclectic system is not for sale. Nanasi and her team at New Energy Economy were not discouraged, instead they continued to advocate for a establishing a municipal electric authority.

“If Santa Fe Public Power is adopted (and without eminent domain), we would have the authority to increase energy efficiency and solar deployment through utility bonds… increase solar for the City, and offer renewable energy for new development,” Nanasi explained to the Santa Fe New Mexican in 2015 coverage of the campaign’s continued efforts.

As documented in this 2015 ILSR piece “How to Maximize Municipal Energy Options for Santa Fe,” the City of Santa Fe weighed different strategies to shift away from dirty energy, push PNM to act, and invest in cleaner energy — particularly in a state like New Mexico with abundant renewable energy resources. Unfortunately, 80% of PNM’s generation capacity was still tied up in coal and nuclear power at that time — just seven percent came from wind and only three percent from solar.

New Energy Economy argued the utility could do better than these measly investments and pushed for accountability. At the time, New Energy Economy proposed the utility take initial steps to improve by replacing aging and dirty coal infrastructure with 23% wind and 9% solar.

Indeed, as the campaign for municipalization, spearheaded by New Energy Economy, continued to gain momentum in Santa Fe, PNM failed to incorporate more renewables into its overall energy portfolio and continued to lobby against the city’s municipalization efforts.

The utility’s resistance to conceding any decision-making power continued, in spite of the desires of both customers and important decision-makers to see the municipalization effort and transition to renewables succeed. A large majority (86%) of residents expressed wanting access to solar power in a New Energy Economy poll. Even Javier Gonzales, the city’s mayor from 2014 to 2018, had thrown his weight behind municipalization and called for an expansion of community solar programs.

More recently, Santa Fe unveiled an ambitious plan in 2018 to become carbon neutral by 2040. And, in 2019 the state of New Mexico proposed and passed its Energy Transition Act. While conceived as a strategy to help the state achieve carbon-free electricity by 2050, the final bill’s passage actually contained big give-aways to PNM, as Nanasi warned about in another recent episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast.

The persistence of clean energy advocates like Nanasi and local community organizations like the New Energy Economy in the fight for local clean energy in Santa Fe and New Mexico, illustrate the need for sustained and long-term campaigns that ensure checks and balances on entrenched and powerful monopoly utility interests like those of PNM.


Want to hear other stories of how communities are building local power and supporting renewable energy?

Stay-tuned for future episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast now every two weeks, including the next episode in our special Voices of 100% series, featuring a conversation with Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-Decoux of Grand Marais, Minn., about his town’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy.

Episode Notes

Find our original post of this 2014 podcast about Santa Fe’s efforts with Mariel Nanasi, a subsequent follow-up conversation in 2016 with Nanasi about the city’s continued municipalization fight, a more recent episode with Nanasi in 2019 about the dangers of big utility giveaways in statewide carbon-free bills like New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act, as well as all Local Energy Rules podcast episodes here.

For concrete examples of how cities like Santa Fe can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future through strategies like municipalization, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is the 75th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.


This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell or Marie Donahue on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update. Undergraduate intern Eli Crain assisted with editing the audio and writing the post summary for this episode.

Featured Photo Credit: Kent Kanouse via Flickr (CC 2.0).

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Elizabeth Crain

Eli Crain was an undergraduate intern with the Energy Democracy Initiative in 2019. In this role, she contributed to podcast editing and post content.

Marie Donahue
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Marie Donahue

Marie Donahue works with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Energy Democracy and Community-Scaled Economy Initiatives. She analyzes and writes about the implications of corporate concentration and monopoly in these sectors.