New Mexican homeowners continue to struggle connecting to solar systems

KRQE Investigates

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico has been called a “national leader in clean energy” with legislation on the books putting the state on a path to renewable energy. But a KRQE investigation found that some homeowners who want to go solar are being told they can’t have it.

New Mexicans can count on seeing sunshine nearly 300 days out of the year. So for Dan 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. We’re not gonna burn coal, or oil, and all these things that are good about solar,” said Monaghan.

He 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, he received a notice from PNM.

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.

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.

Those upgrades are expensive and according to an outdated interconnect rule, “upgrades must be paid for by the customer requesting service.” 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.

Former spokesperson for PNM Meaghan Cavanaugh explained 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.

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.

Months after KRQE first spoke to Monaghan, he sent a third request to connect solar panels through the company Sunrun. Once again, he says PNM told him he can’t connect solar.

Cynthia Hall is a commissioner for District 1 with the state’s Public Regulation Commission, which 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.

Halls says everyone should have the right to put solar panels on their roof if they so choose and the PRC is working to update 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, KRQE asked if that could result in a rate hike for PNM customers. “When we evaluate projects, cost is always a large portion of that,” said Meaghan Cavanaugh, PNM spokesperson. “It really needs to be something that benefits customers and the grid as a whole.”

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 the governor in 2019 sets New Mexico on a path to being 100% carbon-free by 2045.

The Public Regulation Commission and PNM are working together to update its interconnection rules. A public hearing is set for March of next year and the whole process could take a year.

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