Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Interim Legislative Economic and Rural Development Committee that met at the Western New Mexico University J. Cloyd Miller Library on July 14-15.

By Mary Alice Murphy

At the Interim Economic and Rural Development Committee meeting in Silver City, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero and Economic Development Planner Emily Schilling presented about Developing a Sustainable Energy Economy for Southwest New Mexico.

"I represent the four-county region of southwest New Mexico," Lucero said. "We are passionate about improving the quality of life. We just received from the U.S. Department of Commerce $250,000 to pursue renewable energy in the region."

She gave some history on how the Southwest New Mexico Energy and Green Jobs Task Force came into being. "It was an initiative of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman. One of his aides, Melanie Goodman, is here in the audience. She now works for Sen. Tom Udall. Dara Parker, who now works with Sen. Martin Heinrich, was also a Bingaman aide and helped with the process. We have continued our momentum since April of 2010, and have developed a renewable energy efficiency plan."

Lucero said the region is also part of the Stronger Economies Together program, out of which evolved a memorandum of understanding, which was signed by 12 of the 13 local governments in the region, working collaboratively. "It was an outstanding accomplishment," she said.

During this year's legislative session, Lucero said she attended the COG directors' meeting and met several people, including a representative of the Department of Commerce, who "after the meeting I talked to about our plan. Because we are a prime area for renewables, I got an invite to put in an application. We did a three-week turnaround on the application, and within a month we were notified of the award. We are just beginning the 18-month period. The COG will implement the plan using existing staff. We were already applying for USDA Rural Energy for America Program, so we have some work already going."

Schilling discussed the work plan. "Priscilla and I will move it forward. We are working with the Silver City Office of Sustainability, which has applied for energy efficiency audits for small businesses. We will implement recommendations that come out of the plan. The Wellness Coalition received McCune Foundation funding for outreach. New Mexico Tech is doing a business incubator for the region for clean energy. We see the program as sustainable after the funding is done."

"We are developing educational opportunities in the region," Lucero said. "In our four counties, we do not have contractors certified to do the training. The funding can benefit homes and small businesses. We also have a huge collaborative partnership with the utility companies and local governments. We are always looking at ways for people to minimize costs and to keep our jobs and grow them. In the beginning stage of this grant, we have the advantage of knowing the rural communities, incorporated and unincorporated.

"Another goal for us from our perspective is that nothing like this has been done in the five-state region, so we are looking at it as a pilot project," Lucero continued. "It weighs heavily on me for it to be a huge success."

Rep. Bealquin "Bill" Gomez said he had a question not directly related to the presentation. "What has happened to Sapphire Energy?"

Schilling said the company had recently opened four more ponds.

Gomez explained the energy company is growing algae to make oil. "It's good to see the EDA bringing back money to projects. A lot of ideas are out there. NMSU had a building where they were working on nothing but solar, but the feds cut off the funding. I love the idea of you working with all these agencies and keeping the low-income households in mind."

"I'm all for jobs," Rep. Rick Little said. "The one thing that worries me is that to keep jobs we need to have utility costs as low as possible. Solar costs are four times over that of natural gas, which is also clean, by the way. If it weren't for taxpayers helping put solar on houses, it wouldn't work. Let solar and wind catch up. The Mortgage Finance Authority puts money into weatherization. Is there an advantage for this plan right now? Solar works only half the time. I am looking at technology and what works and what's cost-effective. I'm not sure we're ready for 'free' energy when it costs more."

Lucero said to Gomez she appreciated the comment on low-income. "I lived in a low-income house. We had ice on the inside of the windows, because we didn't have enough heat. It's important not to lose sight of the low-income. We can talk about solar and geothermal, but we can't lose sight of aiding homeowners. There's gotta be a way to make it a win-win. I know we're headed in the direction of renewables. I don't want to be left behind."

"Government should be spending money on research," Little concurred. "But I also think the business community should be responsible for making solar more cost-effective. Government gets in the way, using other taxpayers' money. I'm really thinking about being cost-effective. When technology catches up, I'm all for it. A wind turbine costs a lot, and along with maintenance costs and birds being killed, it's not cost-effective. Solar energy is costing people who can't afford solar; they have to pay more to subsidize those who can afford it."

Lucero said weatherization is something that can be accomplished. "If we can accomplish what we hope to, I would like to come back to you in a year to let you know what we have accomplished."

"Weatherization is good," Little agreed. "I want to get energy to people for cheaper."

Sen. Howie Morales, who, as the senator from the region, was attending as a guest, not a member of the committee, asked Lucero how the funding tied into what the COG and the Task Force are already doing.

"We've been assisting small businesses under REAP," Lucero said. "For example, Custom Steelworks put in solar to heat its building. A rancher put in solar to pump water for livestock."

Schilling said the funding ties in with "how we help small businesses grow in the region. We are helping local governments become more sustainable."

"How will you be sustainable after the grant runs out?" Morales asked.

"In the worst case scenario, the expertise will be left with this organization and we will continue to work on economic development," Lucero said. "Our goal is to seek additional funding to sustain it. We have relationships in the region and on the state and federal levels. We can tie things in with the water associations for solar for pumping, for instance. Everything is done as a team."

Morales asked what kind of outcomes Lucero expects from the funding.

"I foresee energy audits on public facilities and small businesses," Lucero said. "I would like to see additional funding from utilities for weatherization. We want to meet the needs of the communities. How do we begin training contractors to do this work? We will collaborate with the university."

Schilling said she would like to see the area become a pilot project. "The EDA is looking at this region as a pilot project for renewable energy."

Morales asked how the funding could benefit everyone statewide.

"By getting utilities to increase their allocations for weatherization," Lucero said. "We already have projects for multi-family facilities. I will look at other housing authorities. We could increase partnerships."

"We want to help educate other COG directors," Schilling said.

Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero said it is important that the COG has taken the effort to address the need. "Renewable is not if, but when. As consumers we see the rise in the cost of utilities. Governments have to provide to working families that struggle to meet costs. Your task force is to look at the most cost-effective way. A great place to work is in public housing. We've seen the economy become more and more disparate in affordability. Government must demonstrate compliance. I envision outcomes as important to this committee, so we can benefit from the reports. Our planning strategies must address the next generation."

The next article will address the application of oil conservation rules.

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