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Has the climate apocalypse started? Or is it just smoke from a nearby forest fire?
Last week, on the way to my regular tennis game, I looked down College Avenue from the university. It was so smoky that I thought something downtown must be on fire – perhaps my office building. I drove down, but it was just smoke; no fire. On the court, some people claimed the smoke was from fires in Canada. Or maybe it was from the Pass Fire, 45 miles north. In any case, we’re lucky not to be choking under the orange skies of New York City, where recent haze was caused by forest fires in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
It’s getting more and more difficult to argue that these fires (not to mention hurricanes, floods and heat waves) are just coincidental. Some people still deny a connection to burning fossil fuels, but it’s a risky bet.
You could bet that climate change is a hoax and we’ll be able to make minor changes to continue the status quo indefinitely. If you win that bet, everything is cool, and you can worry about other problems – such as being destroyed by artificial intelligence. If you lose, we and all our children die and cockroaches inherit the earth.
But if we mistakenly assume climate change, we’ll still create lots of good solar and wind jobs and enjoy cheaper power. Just to be safe, I’m betting on change. I wanted to be the change by putting solar panels on the roof of my office building. Unfortunately, power regulations made this difficult. Power regulations pretend that electrons in different meters are different from each other. For example, the town of Silver City has solar panels at the Murray Ryan Visitor Center parking lot. The power from those panels could offset power used at City Hall, right? No. The town is only allowed to offset power used on the same meter at the Visitor Center.
Imagine that Grant County covered the huge roof of the convention center with tightly packed solar panels. That should power all of the county government’s electrical meters. But no. According to the regulation, the convention center’s blue electrons are incompatible with the county building’s red electrons. I have plenty of room for solar panels on my office building, but I would need to have a separate panel sized for each office, because they all have separate meters. Alternately, I could have one solar-powered meter for the whole building, and sub-meter the power going to different offices. In other words, I would become a little power company. Neither of those solutions is financially feasible. Now imagine that every commercial building in Silver City had a roof packed with solar panels – and maybe a few wind turbines. Every business could sell its power to any other business or home. But then how would Public Service Company of New Mexico – PNM – make money to manage power lines and other electrical infrastructure?
PNM is a regulated utility with the conflicting goals of simultaneously selling and conserving energy. That’s why it lobbies for unintuitive regulations. Its stockholders tell it to sell electricity and make a profit. The state tells it to push efficient light bulbs and refrigerators, and to use cheap renewable energy. The country has a goal (sometimes, sort of) to burn less fossil fuel. This apparently creates so much confusion that PNM wants to sell its whole business to a larger power company, Avangrid.
You hear environmentalists criticizing Avangrid’s record in other areas, but PNM is not without sin. And can you really expect good energy management from a company that apparently doesn’t want to exist here?
The idea of regulated utilities is problematic anyway. How can a company be profitable if the government keeps telling it not to do what it would take to maximize profit? As an alternative, consider the solar field created in 2013 to power the town’s wastewater pumps. Why not expand that field to power the whole town? Just as the town provides water and sewer, it could also provide electricity. And if the town could do that, why couldn’t the state or the whole country do the same?
Maybe I bit off too much with this topic. The problems and opportunities of changing the economic underpinnings of the electrical grid go far beyond the limits of one column in a small-town newspaper. All we can say is that the current electrical grid is stressed and outdated. But changing it is difficult, and replacing it with a new system in the middle of a crisis is impossible.
So, for my next column I’m going to tackle an easier topic – perhaps how to judge floats in the Fourth of July parade.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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