WED: State Regulators Weigh Rules For Community Solar, Sandia Labs Loses Research Center, + MORE

Jun 16, 2021

New Mexico Weighs Rules For Community Solar Program - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico utility regulators have nearly a year to create a set of rules for governing community solar projects in the state. But utilities say they are already being flooded with applications and requests for interconnection from prospective developers.

Under legislation approved earlier this year, the Public Regulation Commission has until April 2022 to finalize the rules. Given the interest, the commission during a meeting Tuesday approved an order making clear that existing rules regarding interconnections, in which solar power facilities are allowed to connect to and supply the grid with power, will remain in place until new rules are adopted. The order also says that an application's place in the queue doesn't guarantee any priority because community solar rules have yet to be established.

The legislation charges the commission with creating a framework for community solar programs, said Russell Fisk, a member of the commission staff who is part of the effort. That includes a cap on how large the programs can be within each utility and other requirements for utilities, developers and subscribers.

"It's such a comprehensive set of rules that has to be created that any current application couldn't possibly anticipate exactly what will be in the rules," he said.

The state's largest utility — Public Service Co. of New Mexico — has received more than 170 pre-applications and interconnection requests related to community solar.

Other investor-owned utilities also are getting requests, and state officials have estimated that more than four times the total expected community solar capacity for the initial two-year period that starts in 2022 already is being requested.

State regulators were planning a workshop for later this month to talk more about the rule-making process.

Supporters of the program have said it will it complement state mandates for generating more electricity from renewable resources by expanding access to solar energy for businesses and residents who can't install their own solar panels.

Community solar projects open the door for households and businesses that don't have access to solar because they rent, don't have the rooftop space or can't afford the upfront costs of a photovoltaic system. Instead, developers build small, local solar facilities from which customers can subscribe and receive credit on their electricity bills for the power produced from their portion of the solar array.

Under the legislation approved in March, 30% of electricity produced from each community solar facility must be reserved for low-income customers and low-income service organizations.

Forty states have at least one community solar project online, with more than 3 gigawatts installed through the first quarter of 2021, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The industry group estimates that the next five years will see the community solar market add more than 4 gigawatts nationwide.

New Mexico Gets Closer To Hitting Vaccination Goal To Reopen - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A key deadline looms for lifting the last public health restrictions in New Mexico, with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wanting at least 60% of residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Thursday so the state could move forward with plans in the coming weeks to fully reopen the economy.

Vaccinations have been inching up only by a couple tenths of a percent daily, and state officials said Wednesday that an additional 21,307 people would need to get either their second shots or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to hit the mark.

State data showed the vaccination rate at 58.7% on Wednesday, up from 58.5% the day before.

New Mexico has been offering cash incentives this week and promoting a multimillion-dollar sweepstakes through social media and email in hopes of reaching the governor's goal.

"We have good data that the incentives are working," Dr. David Scrase, head of New Mexico's Human Services Department, said during a virtual briefing. "I think they're kicking in. We're seeing an ascent every day in appointments and vaccines sought. ... We are really, really focused on this."

Scrase shared statistics that showed a 30% increase in the number of second shots given per day after the state started its latest incentive of $100 for people who get their shots this week. The data also showed 965 people scheduled Johnson & Johnson shots, or eight times more than before the campaign started.

Scrase and the state's health secretary, Dr. Tracie Collins, warned that the pandemic is expected to continue among those who are unvaccinated. They cited data from across the U.S., saying the higher the vaccination rate among the population, the lower the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

New Mexico is among the states to experience that trend, Scrase said.

State officials expressed confidence and said they weren't too concerned about not meeting the 60% vaccination goal. They said the vaccination numbers will be reviewed Friday and that ultimately the decision on when to move forward with ending the state's color-coded risk system and lifting the remaining public health restrictions will be up to the governor.

"I'm confident that we'll end up doing the right thing for the people of New Mexico," Scrase said.

Lujan Grisham has faced much criticism for her handling of the pandemic. Her public health orders also triggered a number of legal battles.

Health officials reported Wednesday that New Mexico is meeting all of the metrics used to determine whether reopening can happen. That includes the rate at which the virus is spreading, the seven-day average of new cases, testing and tracing capacity, and the capacity of the health care system.

Albuquerque Officials Hope To Bring Back Traffic CamerasAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Officials in Albuquerque hope to bring back automated traffic cameras after the city discontinued a traffic camera system about a decade ago.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that a proposed new system, unlike the widely disliked red light camera system previously used by the city, would be mobile and target only speeding vehicles — although not low-level speeders going a few miles over the limit.

Officials say the new system would be put in place to confront speeding and racing on city streets. Joseph Viers, the Albuquerque police commander for traffic and motor units, one-third of all fatal crashes in Albuquerque involve excessive speed.

Violators would receive citations that are civil, rather than criminal, and they would be handled administratively, "basically like parking tickets," Mayor Tim Keller said on Tuesday.

Citations would be reviewed before being mailed, and motorists who receive citations would have access to an appeal process. People who cannot afford fines would be offered alternatives, such as community service. In the previous system, tickets went to the registered vehicle owner.

An ordinance creating the system and providing for traffic penalties would be subject to approval from the Albuquerque City Council.

In 2011, Albuquerque discontinued its association with Redflex Traffic Systems, the Arizona-based company that operates the automated speed cameras, and its camera system.

State Public Defender Agency Settles Gender Pay-Gap Lawsuit - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Several female attorneys and investigators at the state Law Offices of the Public Defender are getting raises to resolve a lawsuit that alleged unfair compensation in comparison with better-paid male colleagues.

Five employees at the public defender's offices are receiving raises to resolve discrimination claims, according to settlement documents obtained Wednesday, The agency provides legal representation in state courts to those who can't afford an attorney. It has more than 400 employees.

The public defender's offices also paid out $450,000 to end the lawsuit by eight female plaintiffs who alleged violations of the state's Fair Pay for Women Act, which mandates equal pay for equal work.

The lawsuit cited the agency's own gender equity study on pay from February 2018 as evidence of widespread pay inequities, and it claimed that the agency failed to rectify salary disparities or implement a system that would prevent a gender gap in compensation.

State Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said the 2018 study did not find widespread pay inequities as alleged, while he noted that efforts are underway to identify any broader pay disparities.

"This suit focused on several individual female employees and not the whole department," Baur said in an email. "Still, we have undertaken a study of our salary structure to identify and address any broader pay disparities. No salary structure is perfect, but we have spent several years, and are still working on, implementing and trying to fund a structure that is as fair as possible for everyone in the department."

He described "huge gains" in the recruitment, compensation and promotion of women in recent years. "More than half of our current leadership across the department, and on our executive team, are women," Baur said.

The plaintiffs to the lawsuit included two long-serving senior investigators, who said they were paid $14,500 less annually than the average male senior investigator at the agency. They said a newly hired male investigator also earned a higher salary.

The lawsuit also was brought by managing attorneys. an attorney specializing in violent criminal cases and a district defender who oversees Chavez, Eddy and Lea counties.

Separately, concerns about a gender gap in pay recently emerged in the upper echelons of New Mexico state government with a discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court by the former executive director of the Educational Retirement Board that oversees a multibillion pension fund for public school employees.

Pension executive Jan Goodwin alleges that the state refused to pay her at the same level as a man who oversees state investment trusts. She filed the lawsuit after leaving the Educational Retirement Board for a job with New Hampshire's public retirement system.

Women hold more than half of the state's Cabinet-level jobs under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero previously sued to state for gender discrimination based on pay inequities when she was a deputy warden.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender is overseen by an independent commission. An attorney for the plaintiffs could not be reached immediately.

New Mexico Education Department Mistake Shuffles $35 Million - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report for America, Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico education officials accepted a federal decision barring them from taxing millions in federal aid sent to school districts near tribal areas and military bases.

Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart said Tuesday that the state will not appeal because it would likely fail in court.

The decision means more money for some school districts as they keep both their federal and state funding. The Legislature had planned to allow them to do so starting next year.

"We don't lose $1 of education funding in the state," Stewart said in an interview last week, in which he took some responsibility for his department missing a March 3, 2020 deadline for the application cited in the federal agency's decision. "Now the big problem that that presents, of course, is that's not how the Legislature budgeted for the FY 21 year."

The Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday the Public Education Department received approval from the Board of Finance to transfer $35 million from a state reserve fund to fill the resulting budget gap from the federal decision.

New Mexico is one of three states, along with Alaska and Kansas, that essentially redistribute federal Impact Aid, a supplement for school districts who can't tax the land around them because it is federal property. In New Mexico the lands range from Indigenous nations, to military bases and missile ranges, to federally owned forests.

State education agencies are allowed to take the so-called Impact Aid "credit" if they redistribute funding to reduce disparities between school districts. Other states simply allow massive funding inequities between poor and wealthy areas.

Federal officials rescinded approval of New Mexico's Impact Aid Credit application in a letter on April 15, citing the state's failure to meet a March 3, 2020, application deadline by three days.

"It's incumbent upon me as Secretary to have the kinds of redundancies in place to make sure that we can't miss a deadline like that," Stewart said last week.

But he added that the Department of Education hadn't provided the information needed to finish the application and that his staff received assurances over the phone that missing the deadline would be forgiven.

Federal officials also approved the application in writing last year, but then rescinded it this year, according to an April 15 letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

Impact Aid Director Faatimah Muhammad was not made available by the Department of Education to comment on the decision, and a spokesman declined to respond to Stewart's criticisms.

Stewart also criticized federal education officials for rescinding approval of the application on April 15, about four months after it had approved it and the state Legislature had passed the annual budget.

"We remain deeply troubled by the Department of Education's multiple errors, miscommunications and ultimate decision in this process," Stewart said Tuesday.

Longtime Sandia Labs Airline Safety Research Center MovingAssociated Press

A decades-old program at Sandia National Laboratories that focused on new innovations in airplane inspection will be taking flight elsewhere.

The Albuquerque-based weapons research and development facility announced Tuesday that the Federal Aviation Administration Airworthiness Assurance Center will relocate to Wichita State University in Kansas.

The program will be part of the university's National Institute of Aviation Research. Officials say the move follows structural shifts at both Sandia and the FAA.

Sandia Labs has operated the center for the FAA for 30 years.

Under the program, researchers worked alongside aircraft manufacturers, industry experts and regulatory agencies to enhance airplane inspection and maintenance systems. Priorities included expanding on ways to inspect aging airplanes.

Over the years, the center assisted with high-profile accident investigations for TWA Flight 800 and Swissair Flight 111.

Vaccine Supplies Eclipse Demand In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Vaccine supplies have eclipsed demand in New Mexico even as the state makes a hard push toward meeting a key vaccination goal Thursday.

Health officials have confirmed to The Associated Press that New Mexico's inventory includes nearly 493,000 doses that are being stored in freezers around the state. Expiration dates range from this week through September. The state also has donated 372,600 doses of its undelivered allocation back to the federal government.

Health Department spokesman David Morgan has said New Mexico is adapting to shrinking demand for the COVID-19 vaccine in several ways. That includes ordering only a minimal number each week to cover requests from providers.

New Mexico is just shy of meeting its goal of having 60% of residents 16 and older fully vaccinated. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to hit that mark this week so she can follow through with plans to fully reopen the state by July 1.

The latest data from the state puts the vaccination rate at 58.5%. Meanwhile, about 67% of eligible residents have received at least one shot.

The state is offering cash incentives for people who get either their second shot or the one-time Johnson & Johnson shot by Thursday. Those who are vaccinated also can participate in a sweepstakes that includes a grand prize of $5 million.

The governor used social media Monday and Tuesday to promote the sweepstakes as various state agencies sent out emails encouraging people to get registered and vaccinated.

Vaccination rates have dropped off particularly in rural counties where some residents simply aren't interested in getting shots. In Roosevelt County, less than 30% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.

More than 80% of residents in Los Alamos County — home to Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the more affluent counties in the U.S. — have been vaccinated, placing it ahead of New Mexico's other counties.

McKinley County, which has a high population of Native Americans, also is at the top of the list with a 77% vaccination rate. Overall, state data estimates that more than half of Native Americans have been inoculated.

State officials said the excess doses can be used to meet future demand over the coming months since they plan to continue with the vaccination push even after New Mexico meets its goal.