Albuquerque’s Solar Power Grab
New Mexico’s largest city aims to get 25 percent of its energy from solar power by 2025. And it’s doing it without any help from the state.
By Erick Trickey
ALBUQUERQUE — On a typically sunny day in December, Albuquerque City Council member Pat Davis climbs a ladder to the roof of Fire Station 5. Three south-facing solar thermal panels stand nearby, capturing enough heat to power more than half the water the station’s 10-person crews use for cooking and showers. Scanning his surroundings, Davis offers a preview of the city’s future that uses the sun for more than just promotional material.
“We bought these next two lots, and we’re going to take this old nightclub down,” he said, pointing to a vast parking lot and a 55-year-old building about to host its last dance night. In its place, the city plans to build a new library and economic development center, powered entirely by renewable energy. A year from now, an electric bus rapid transit line will pass right by, traversing nine miles of Central Avenue, the Route 66 corridor. In future years, the city plans to take the bus chargers off electric meters and connect them to solar panels.
This push on solar power might sound like a no-brainer in a city that boasts about 300 days of sunshine a year, but it has taken longer than one might expect for Albuquerque to capitalize on a resource it has in abundance. This fall, though, it took a major step forward, racing to catch up with a private sector that has been responding to market demand.
In September, Albuquerque’s city government committed to getting 25 percent of its energy from solar power by 2025. It’s part of a growing movement, as cities from Las Vegas to New York City dedicate themselves to renewable-energy goals. Here, four progressives on the nine-member city council, motivated by climate change and Albuquerque’s remarkably clear skies, convinced their conservative colleagues that putting solar panels on city buildings would save the city money. It’s an example of progressive activists turning to cities when stymied at the state level. In 2015, Governor Susanna Martinez vetoed the renewal of a solar energy tax credit, a setback for the state’s growing solar industry. Filling the gap that opened up when the state backtracked has been a huge policy victory for Davis, 38, a former police officer at the U.S. Capitol who’s also head of the advocacy group Progress Now New Mexico.
“Like everything else in government,” Davis said, “it’s back to municipals to be the innovators.”
The sun holds a near-spiritual place in the minds of New Mexicans. A Zia Pueblo sun symbol decorates the state flag. Albuquerque calls its airport the Albuquerque International Sunport. Civic booster patter claims that New Mexico is the second sunniest state—an exaggeration, but not by much. Albuquerque ranks in the top 4 percent of U.S. communities in average daily sunlight, behind Los Angeles and Phoenix, but ahead of Palm Beach.
New Mexico has a long but fitful history of embracing solar energy, dating back to the 1970s and Taos’ off-grid Earthships, when back-to-the-landers built desert houses with straw bales and cooked with wood stoves. Today, the off-grid experiments have given way to more conventional arrangements with power companies, encouraged by state and federal policy. New Mexico’s power companies are adding renewable energy capacity to meet state standards, which will require them to generate 20 percent of their power from clean sources by 2020. But New Mexico still lags behind other Sun Belt states in its embrace of renewable energy. Its solar capacity per capita is only two-fifths of Nevada’s. It ranks seventh in solar watts per person, according to industry figures, just ahead of Vermont and just behind New Jersey.
A tax credit for solar development, enacted in 2006, expired this year. Martinez, a two-term Republican governor, pocket-vetoed a renewal of the credit in April 2015 without explanation. After another bill to renew it stalled in the Legislature this past winter, the activist group Environment New Mexico turned to Davis, newly elected to Albuquerque’s City Council. “[They] came and said, ‘We’re looking for local organizing opportunities, things we can get done in cities that we can’t get done in Congress or the [state] Legislature,’” Davis said.
Their research unearthed an opportunity: Albuquerque had applied for $50 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, a federal program that helps local governments finance renewable energy projects. But the city was running out of time to send in a plan for using the bonds. So Davis co-sponsored a resolution to set a goal of generating 25 percent of the city government’s energy needs with solar power by 2025.
“It started with me and a couple of other progressive Democratic councilors saying, this is just a smart climate-change thing to do,” Davis said.
But when the resolution came up in May, Davis didn’t have the votes. Budget hawks on the council, which includes five Democrats and four Republicans, asked what effect the renewal-energy effort would have on the city budget. Davis and his co-sponsor didn’t have the numbers.
So they turned to a contractor working on a pilot solar project on another city fire station. The pilot project showed the capital investment could be made up by savings of about $3.5 million a year. “The cost is down low enough that it doesn’t make sense not to do it,” Davis said.
With that math in hand, plus estimates on how all the city’s buildings could be renovated with renewable energy sources, the progressives made their case. The resolution passed unanimously in September. The city submitted its plan for $51 million in capital spending on 57 solar electricity systems this week. “Some of us are there because of climate change,” Davis said, “some of us because it’s fiscally responsible.”
Up on a roof in the Albuquerque suburb of Placitas, a crew is installing 16 solar panels. The minimalist beauty of New Mexico’s high desert landscape surrounds them—one adobe-style wood-and-stucco house after another, on craggy, sandy land amid evergreen trees, scrub brush and the occasional cactus.
“What sets New Mexico apart is, we have a lot of these flat roofs,” says project manager Jacob Schreiner, standing atop the one-story house. Adobe-style architecture makes solar installation easy. It’s just a quick trip up a ladder for the installers; the solar panels follow them up a conveyor belt six at a time. The panels aren’t even screwed into the roof, but placed on racks held in place with ballast blocks. Schreiner’s crew can install an average solar array on a house in one day, for $20,000 to $30,000. His company, SunPower by Positive Energy Solar, predicts homeowners get a return on their investment in seven to 10 years.
This homeowner isn’t going off the grid. New Mexico, like 40 other states, requires local power companies to participate in net metering. That means the company must partner with solar customers, accepting the electricity their panels generate into the power grid and giving them full credit for it. Then homeowners don’t have to worry about running out of electricity on winter’s shorter, cloudier days.
Positive Energy Solar, New Mexico’s largest residential solar installer, installs about four megawatts of solar electric capacity a year, enough to power 1,000 homes, and it expects its business to increase to five megawatts worth in 2017. The company, which also has commercial and government clients, has performed more than 2,000 installations since its 1997 founding. But it experienced a slowdown this fall, because even in sunny states, tax policy has a strong effect on the solar industry. The federal solar tax credit, once set to expire this year, has been extended through 2021, so customers aren’t rushing their purchases, knowing they have time. And funding for the state’s solar tax credit, which officially expires at the end of 2016, ran out in July.
“When you buy a solar system, you’re basically paying for 25 years of energy up front,” said Regina Wheeler, Positive Energy Solar’s CEO. “Even though you’re paying less for that 25 years of energy than you would’ve paid, still, you want to get it as cheaply as you can.”
That’s a good deal for governments, Wheeler said “They totally see that they’ve got this ever-escalating operational expense,” she said. Many turn to solar to control it.
The company’s larger clients include the cities of Santa Fe and Las Cruces and the Albuquerque Public Schools. (It also works with Native American tribes; last month it installed solar panels for Tewa Women United, a tribal support group.) Albuquerque’s city government isn’t a client yet, but it’s a potential client now that its renewable energy effort is launching in the new year.
New Mexico’s solar industry includes almost 100 companies and about 1,900 workers—figures that solar advocates tout as they lobby for support in Santa Fe, the state capital.
“It’s a good industry,” said state Senator Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who has sponsored successful solar-energy bills in the past. “It’s high-paying jobs, sales and marketing, installation, research and development.”
Stewart, who sponsored the subsequently vetoed 2015 bill to renew the state solar tax credit, says she will try again in 2017. The bill’s chances of passage are uncertain. Solar energy has some Republican support in the Legislature, but more among Democrats, who took over the state House and increased their state Senate majority in November’s election.
On the other hand, New Mexico faces a budget crisis thanks to falling oil and gas revenue. Some legislators are arguing for eliminating tax credits to fill the fiscal gap. Solar advocates look warily to Martinez, the Republican governor, unsure whether she’d sign a solar tax credit this time. (Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.) If not, they’re looking to 2018, when her last term ends.
“We could be doing much better,” says Stewart, who envies the solar capacity of less sunny northern states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey. “We are preparing, in two years, to try to get a governor who’ll go full speed ahead.”
In the meantime, cities like Albuquerque are figuring it out on their own.