Commentary: I recently attended a public meeting about a proposed new electric substation in the Talavera community outside of Las Cruces.
The four-acre project would put 100-foot tall towers and transformers behind a “good looking” 8- foot wall. It would be brightly illuminated for security reasons at night. The adjacent residential neighborhoods have no street lights and some locals are amateur astronomers who moved there for the dark night skies.
“Do you consider the impact on property values?” one woman asked.
“We are not in the property appraisal business” came the answer.
The message was clear. By hook or crook a substation was going to be built and residents had little input as to where or how.
It got me to thinking. If this is how an upper middle-class neighborhood is treated, what kind of abuse do low income neighborhoods endure? Surely the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) reviews these projects before allowing utilities to spring them on local communities.
A bit of research reveals they do not. Not really.
EPE sends a form to the PRC describing each project, but does not include a study of projected electricity demand in the impacted area or a cost study of potential alternative solutions. The projects are accepted by default.
El Paso Electric and PNM each spend about $100 million annually on new power lines and substations without any meaningful review. Consumers historically pay utilities a 10% annual return on these assets for forty or more years. That’s one powerful motive to build projects that may not be needed.
The proposed Talavera substation would create the capacity to serve an additional 20,000 to 30,000 homes. This for a service area that has recently experienced anemic growth. It could take decades before most of the new capacity is utilized, if ever.
These days there are often better alternatives to building new substations and power lines. They can save money and alleviate eye-sores like the proposed Talavera substation. They range from targeted energy efficiency and peak demand “shaving” programs, to increasingly affordable battery storage. Much smaller investments in these kinds of projects might serve Talavera’s needs for many years. If and when electricity demand grows, they can be scaled up as needed.
Con Ed in New York reports avoiding $1.2 billion in new substation investments by investing less than $200 million in alternative solutions. Bonneville power recently nixed $1 billion in transmission investments in favor of new alternatives. San Diego Gas & Electric has asked vendors for proposals to use alternative “non-wire” solutions in place of previously planned substation and power line investments.
The age of reflexive investments in substations and power lines is over. The PRC should require analysis of all options for keeping the lights on before approving these projects. It’s not only about saving money, it’s about preserving quality of life. Claims that the PRC is overworked are no excuse. Ensuring the lowest cost reliable service is its core mission. Prioritize!
The government guarantees monopoly utilities monthly entrée into our bank accounts. It’s only fair that we be guaranteed wise utility investments in return.
Steve Fischmann is a former state senator and democratic candidate for the district 5 seat on the Public Regulation Commission.