NM’s solar industry shining brighter
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s solar energy developers say their industry is finally hitting its stride as thousands of new residential and commercial customers opt to go solar, and more utilities nationwide turn to the sun for electric generation.
Plunging prices are driving the market for solar systems, with waves of homeowners and commercial establishments tapping into sun power to offset rising electric utility bills. And, with many more financing options available today, plus a lot more solar companies competing, solar generation is beginning to penetrate the consumer mainstream.
“We continue to see about 20 percent more growth per year as more people become aware of the opportunities,” said Regina Wheeler, CEO of Sunpower by Positive Energy Solar, which installs residential and commercial systems throughout the state. “There’s solid knowledge today that solar is a viable, attractive way to fix a customer’s long-term energy costs at an affordable price. It can help control unlimited utility costs and people understand that now.”
Jerry Mosher, managing member of Consolidated Solar Technologies LLC in Albuquerque, said his business is signing up a lot more residential and commercial customers.
“We’re doing a lot more solar installations than we used to,” Mosher said. “Business is very steady, whereas before it was up and down. The solar market has matured now to the point where it’s a pretty steady deal and there’s still a lot more room to grow.”
By all counts, 2015 was a banner year for the industry in New Mexico and nationwide, and 2016 is so far shaping up to be even better.
As of early this year, the U.S. market had reached 1 million solar installations – a milestone representing 27.5 gigawatts of installed generating capacity, or enough electricity to power 5.4 million homes, according to the national Solar Energy Industry Association.
The SEIA expects another 14.5 GW to be installed this year, or nearly twice the 7.3 GW developers built across the country last year.
As of year-end 2015, New Mexico had about 400 megawatts of installed capacity. That includes 85 MW of residential and commercial systems, and 316 MW of utility-scale generation scattered throughout the service territories of New Mexico’s public utilities and electric cooperatives.
The generating power of solar systems can vary widely. Some utility-scale plants provide enough power per MW only for a few hundred average homes. Some offer a lot more, depending on location, type of technology used, and strength and availability of sunlight.
Public Service Company of New Mexico accounts for about 41 percent of all installed solar capacity in the state. That includes 15 utility-scale projects with 107 MW of capacity, which PNM says is enough to power about 140,000 average New Mexico homes.
All told, New Mexico ranks 8th in the nation today in terms of installed solar capacity per capita, according to the Environment America Research and Policy Center.
New Mexico’s utility-scale solar has increased as public utilities strive to meet the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires them to derive 15 percent of their electric generation today from renewable sources and 20 percent by 2020. Although PNM has no immediate plans to procure more solar now, other utilities and cooperatives are building new installations and the renewable portfolio standard will drive more procurements in coming years.
Residential and commercial installations are booming in part because of state-mandated utility incentives to encourage consumer adoption, plus a 10 percent state tax credit for solar installations in effect since 2008.
Until recently, PNM and El Paso Electric Co. in southern New Mexico offered payments to customers for each kilowatt-hour of solar electricity they produced, which helped consumers and businesses offset the costs of installing systems.
Those utilities also offer net metering, which allows customers with solar systems to sell all the excess electricity they produce back to the grid at a price equal to what PNM pays for its own electricity. That net metering is separate from the renewable payments, which PNM pays to consumers for helping it meet its RPS mandates.
To date, 7,100 customers have signed up for PNM credits, said Kumiko Styes, the utility’s customer solar program manager. That’s up from 4,400 in 2014.