New Mexico homeowners told they can’t connect solar systems

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico has been called a ‘national leader in clean energy,’ with legislation putting the state on a path to renewable energy. However, some homeowners who want to install solar are being told they can’t.

“It seems like the system isn’t keeping up with the times, and the technology,” said Dan Monaghan, a New Mexico homeowner. “We bought this house assuming that it was fine for solar, we had no reason to think it wouldn’t be fine for solar,” he added.

New Mexicans can count on seeing sunshine nearly 300 days out of the year, according to the National Weather Service. So for Monaghan, he figured installing solar panels at his northwest Albuquerque home made perfect sense. “We just think it’s a good way to help the world,” said Monaghan. “We’re not gonna burn coal, or oil, and all these things that are good about solar.”

Monaghan hired Tesla Energy Operations to do the install, paid $100 to get the process going, and applied for permits with the city and his HOA. Then months later, Monaghan got a notice from PNM. “We ran into a solid roadblock at PNM, who said, ‘No you can’t,’” Monaghan recalled.

The notice from PNM states:

“We have determined that the current feeder that would connect your project is considered full and we cannot interconnect any additional solar without significant system improvements.”

“No system improvements to increase capacity on this feeder are currently planned. In the event that system improvements are made in the future that free up capacity, we would be happy to contact you to re-evaluate your application or to process a new application.

PNM

So what is a feeder, and and why is it important?

Essentially, there are power distribution lines both above and below ground transmitting electricity to homes. PNM says each feeder has very strict voltage and capacity requirements to keep everyone operating. Adding more solar-generated energy to a maxed-out feeder without upgrades could create a safety hazard and reliability concerns.

Photo of a ‘feeder,’ courtesy of PNM

Through Facebook, Monaghan found other homeowners were told the same thing; they can’t install solar systems due to PNM feeders being at max capacity.

“I think it’s absolutely insane that somebody can tell me that I can’t put solar in my house,” said Monaghan. “Especially the people who sell non-solar electricity. Imagine if the bakery down the street could tell you that, ‘Yeah we know you can bake bread yourself, but because of regulations, you have to buy your bread from us. Sorry.”

“We fully support customer-owned solar, and we think it’s wonderful that customers want to install solar on their home, and we support renewable resources,” said Meaghan Cavanaugh, spokesperson for PNM. “But we do have a commitment to make sure that when we’re interconnecting anything onto our grid, that it’s being done so under the guidelines and standards set by the interconnection manual and the PRC.”

Cavanaugh said the utility company does not deny applications for customer-owned solar systems but rather places them on hold. “99% of the interconnection applications that we receive are approved,” said Cavanaugh.

However, the number of customers waiting in line for solar is climbing. PNM saw a record number of applicants in 2020, a 44% increase from 2019, with more people staying home in the pandemic. “That was a huge increase for applications for solar requests,” a PNM representative said during a virtual workshop on February 18.

In order to increase feeder capacity, rules set in the interconnection manual state, “The cost of utility system modifications required pursuant to the fast track process or the full interconnection study process shall be borne by the interconnection customer unless otherwise agreed by the parties.”

The interconnection manual and rules were discussed during the February 18 virtual workshop with utility companies and state regulators. “The cost of these upgrades as I mentioned previously are well in excess of $1 million, that we don’t anticipate a small residential customer to be able to pay that,” a PNM representative stated during her presentation.

The state’s interconnection manual was written in 2008. “It’s very outdated,” said Hall. “Technology has really advanced, not just with solar systems, but with how we manage distribution lines, bigger transmission lines.”

Should customers be told they can’t connect their own solar systems?

“It’s unacceptable,” said Cynthia Hall, Public Regulation Commissioner for District One. “No, it’s not fair.” New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission, or PRC, is the authority that regulates PNM.

“To me, it seems like a no-brainer because we have such an enormous resource of solar energy here,” said Hall. She said everyone should have access to solar and have the right to put panels on their roof if they so choose.

The PRC is now in the preliminary stages of updating its interconnection rules. “This is a big job we have, which is regulating these monopoly utility companies, and making sure that the rates they charge people are fair,” said Hall.

If PNM expands feeder capacity to allow more solar connections, KRQE News 13 asked if that could result in a rate hike for PNM customers. “When we evaluate projects, cost is always a large portion of that it really needs to be something that benefits customers and the grid as a whole,” said Cavanaugh. “We wouldn’t necessarily consider an upgrade, or an addition onto the grid just because of a few customers in that specific area.”

Commissioner Hall said any rate hike would have to be approved by the PRC. “That’s our job,” said Hall. “It’s a very thorough examination every time before we decide to approve a rate increase.”

For now, PNM encourages homeowners and contractors to look up their addresses online before investing in solar, to see if feeders in their area are at max capacity. Meanwhile, the state’s Energy Transition Act signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2019 sets New Mexico on a path to being 100% carbon-free by 2045. PNM plans to reach that goal by 2040.

“But you know, some people wanna do something sooner,” said Hall. “We’re moving pretty aggressively in New Mexico to modernize our whole grid system and how it operates.”

The PRC and PNM are working together to update its interconnection rules, however, Hall said that process could take a year. She encourages any homeowner in New Mexico who runs into issues, to contact the PRC so that the commission can investigate individual cases if needed.