Energy resources tested as Western states see soaring demand

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Standing amid an array of solar panels, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told a national audience this week that she’s proud of instituting aggressive renewable energy mandates in her state. A day later, she touted the state’s move toward solar, wind and battery storage in a tweet.

The Democratic governor’s messages come as New Mexico’s largest electric provider asks people to cut back on air conditioning and the use of other major appliances to reduce strain on the power grid.

The reason? The utility is worried about cloud cover affecting the ability of solar panels to generate electricity as demand increases because of higher temperatures.

“As we deal with record-setting heat in the West, energy supplies in the West are limited,” Public Service Co. of New Mexico said in a social media post Wednesday.

The request to reduce use is a familiar refrain being heard by utility customers in neighboring Arizona, where two of that state’s largest utilities sent out notices this week urging about 2.3 million customers to cut back to avoid outages like those in California. In Nevada, customers have received emails and phone messages aimed at conservation.

The recent brownouts in California were caused by the failure of a power plant and the loss of wind power. It marked the first rolling outages in nearly 20 years. The three biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric — turned off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour at a time until the emergency declaration ended a few hours later.

Temperatures in the West have been soaring, resulting in increased air conditioning use. Utility managers say the power grid is put to the test during the late afternoon and early evening because of higher demand and as solar energy production declines.

Critics of efforts like those in New Mexico to switch to zero-emission sources such as solar and wind are pointing to this summer’s supply-and-demand pressures, saying things could get worse as more solar is added to Public Service Co. of New Mexico’s portfolio.

The utility is working to beat the state’s deadline for being emissions free by 2040. Battery storage will be part of the system, and the utility has acknowledged in filings with state regulators that the technology is still maturing.

Larry Behrens, a regional director for the energy advocacy group Power The Future, suggested that New Mexico’s energy transition law is creating a system that will leave customers without reliable sources of electricity.

“New Mexico’s families must continue to face the real consequences of pushing an agenda that doesn’t provide power when we need it most,” he said.

Environmentalists argue that the heat wave is in part caused by climate change and that the situation underscores the need to address pollution from traditional coal-fired and natural gas power plants.

They also say that evolving battery storage technology will help with the reliability issues and that better forecasting of weather and electricity demands can be incorporated into utility plans so outages can be avoided.

Aside from building more power plants and storage, the solution also will require changes on the demand side, said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.

“We are gradually moving toward a smarter grid in which people can be incentivized and compensated for reducing demand during peak periods,” she said, pointing to options like smart meters.

Officials at Public Service Co. of New Mexico said this has been the hottest August in decades for the utility’s service area. Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque warned Friday of more record heat for the western part of the state over the next several days.