Green Fire Times: 2015 Santa Fe Energy Summit

By:  Seth Roffman

On Aug. 12, Santa Fe Community College hosted the 2015 Santa Fe Energy Summit. Federal, state, tribal and local public officials gathered to share ideas about the changing face of energy generation and New Mexico’s potentially pivotal role in determining the course of the United States’ energy future. 

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, who happens to be a Santa Fe resident, gave the keynote speech and participated in a Q&A with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), moderated by Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales.

A Microgrid Panel discussed emerging options such as community solar initiatives and decentralized microgrids to manage energy use, as well as energy storage advancements that can cut renewables’ costs and allow time-shifting of electricity to when it is most needed. An Energy-Water Nexus Panel discussed hydropower, long-term strategies for groundwater, wastewater and what it would take to achieve sustainable water use. Heinrich participated in a Tribal Energy Panel that examined renewable energy options. “Many tribal leaders have come to me and said, ‘This is power that we believe is consistent with our values, and it’s what our young people want to see.’ Let’s get together and find some projects we can move forward on,’’ Heinrich said.

Sherwood-Randall said, “With 19,000 full-time employees at the [Los Alamos and Sandia National] laboratories, New Mexico is at the center of much of what the DOE does. …Climate change is shifting the playing field on how we make decisions. Since President Obama took office, solar prices have come down 75 percent, and solar jobs have grown 20 times more than the economy as a whole. The president’s Clean Power Plan will provide technical assistance to help states set their own energy paths. The plan also helps those laid-off from coal power plants.”

“It’s a challenging time right now,” Heinrich said. “In Washington there are a lot of people who don’t understand how quickly clean energy is becoming the industry standard, both in terms of new generation, as well as the most cost-competitive power sources that we’re now seeing being brought online around the country.

“It’s important to bring New Mexico’s ranking in exploitation of our renewable resources more in line with their availability,” Heinrich added. “We have this huge potential, and we need to make our reality and our potential come together, and that’s what this conference is all about. We should be producing distributed, clean energy for our own consumers here in the state. And we should also be producing clean energy for our neighbors because we have some of the best wind potential in the entire nation, but that currently is stranded because we don’t have adequate transmission. That’s something we are working to change. Only Arizona has better solar potential than we do. As we employ those things, what we’ve seen is that they are creating great jobs. There are now 1,600 people working on distributed solar here in the state. Those are people who go to work every day excited about what they are doing for their neighbors. 

“It’s hard to reconcile that kind of potential with the fact that we see our governor veto solar tax incentives when this is, right now, the job creator in our state; or that she vetoed funding the Legislature approved for the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority. RETA is an entity that allows us to leverage billions in investment from other places in the transmission, so we can take our clean energy and share it as well as produce it and consume it right here.
“We look to cities for leadership,” Heinrich went on. “Santa Fe is able to lead on its own. They’re doing that because the mayor is making it a priority, the City Council is making it a priority; the community has said, ‘We want to see progress on this.’”

Heinrich has introduced a bill to extend the Residential Solar Tax Credit by five years to help families pay for residential clean-energy equipment, such as solar photovoltaics, solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and small wind turbines. “This legislation puts solar energy within reach for more Americans,” Heinrich said. “Families with solar panels on their rooftops already know firsthand how solar can reduce energy costs at home. With more than 300 days of sun in New Mexico, this tremendous resource should continue to be harnessed as an economic engine for our state. Extending the Solar Tax Credit for families is a great way to achieve that.” 

Heinrich also has introduced a bill to encourage community solar projects, similar to New Mexico’s first community-owned solar garden at Taos Charter School. The Shared Solar (PRESS) Act would require states to consider adopting new standards that allow community solar projects to be connected to the grid and allow electricity produced by shared solar facilities to be credited to consumers, offsetting their electricity bills. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia have shared renewable-energy policies in place. “Shared solar projects have the potential to allow more Americans who lack sunny roof space or startup capital to truly benefit from solar energy and take personal ownership over their own energy use and carbon footprint,” Heinrich said. 

Santa Fe Community College, a school committed to delivering a green workforce, was an appropriate site for the summit. “Green jobs, as they relate to energy, pay more because of the special and technical skills that are needed,” said Mayor Gonzales. “As the senator and others continue to push for our potential to meet reality, we’re training people, getting them ready to go out and retrofit homes, install solar panels, learn about micro-grid technology, which will allow us to truly talk about how we secure an energy future that is independent from some of the traditional sources of energy, like coal, that heavily rely on big transmission systems that ratepayers pay quite a bit of money for.”