Tuesday, 27 Jan 2004

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Today, if all goes well, a $20 million Solar Bond will be introduced in the New Mexico state legislature.

It’s been a long, slow dance to get to this point. Shortly after Vote Solar’s inception, we conducted an analysis of the places in the U.S. where solar is most attractive, financially speaking. Factored into this analysis were cost of electricity, available rebates, and solar insolation. New Mexico, despite a lack of rebate money, turned up seventh on the list.

“All politics is local,” someone — probably Tip O’Neill or maybe Mark Twain — once said. If he’d been an environmental advocate, he would have amended, “And if you are trying to do something in the environmental realm, you’d better get the buy-in of local groups, or your idea is going to stay local.”

Good advice, Tip. So, the first thing I did was make a list of all the environmental groups working in New Mexico and call them up. I laid out the Vote Solar model, talked about how it is being implemented in San Francisco, and shared some facts and figures about how the solar-retrofitted Moscone Convention Center is saving the city money. More importantly, I laid out why I thought something similar could work in New Mexico. I asked about their agendas, whether there were any conflicts, and if the conversation went well, whether they might potentially want to carry something like this, with our assistance.

Ben Luce, chair of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy.

Photo: Naishing Key.

I talked to a lot of groups doing a lot of great things, but in New Mexico, the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy is the group working on renewable energy. As the name implies, CCAE is an umbrella organization coordinating the renewable-energy efforts of a bunch of local groups, including the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, N.M. PIRG, Sierra Club, etc. Ben Luce and Amy Welch immediately dialed into the solar revenue bond’s premise and promise, and invited me to come down to their board’s “strategery” session. The board liked it, and so the next step became the seduction of the state government.

We met with state energy officials to explain the model and how it is working elsewhere, including the fiscal and environmental benefits. With Ben and Amy of CCAE plotting the political strategy, I worked with staff from the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department to figure out the size and extent of the energy-efficiency opportunity in state-owned buildings — as energy efficiency has a much quicker payback than solar, this would determine how much solar could be cost-effectively installed. The department estimated that state buildings could use an easy $15 million worth of readily identifiable energy-efficiency upgrades. Using payback estimates based on actual results of recent local projects, we calculated that that amount of energy efficiency could be bundled together with $5 million for solar and still stay revenue-positive using likely bond rates.

Yes, it is a high ratio of energy efficiency to solar, but electricity is cheap in New Mexico, and state buildings get a special deal on top of that. The important thing is to stay revenue-positive — that is, to have the expected energy savings exceed the amortized cost of the capital equipment. It saves money, provides jobs, and cleans the air — a very palatable package that Ben and Amy were able to put in front of the governor, who took the bait and put it on his list of issues to be dealt with in the upcoming legislative session.

At this point, Vote Solar’s alter ego, the Vote Solar Action Fund (our 501(c)(4) lobbying arm), took over and did what organizations do when they are serious about results: chipped in for a lobbyist. It’s not enough to let an idea sell itself on its merits — you need someone who knows all the players, knows how to navigate the local waters, and can explain the idea in a way that is palatable to regional tastes.

The bill hasn’t passed yet, so I share this with you, dear readers, at grave risk of jinxing the whole project. Please do your part and cross a finger or two for solar in New Mexico …