By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico customers are sounding the alarm over a proposed multibillion-dollar merger of the state’s largest electric utility provider with a U.S. subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, citing a sordid track record of reliability and customer service.
They voiced their concerns during a virtual hearing Monday as state regulators prepare to hear from attorneys and experts representing Public Service Co. of New Mexico, Connecticut-based Avangrid and other groups that have intervened in a case that has the potential to change the way electricity is generated and distributed in the state.
The companies have been running television, radio and newspaper ads in an effort to win more support.
Some politicians, environmental groups and labor union bosses have signed on, but others say regulators need to consider Avangrid and Iberdrola’s histories when it comes to providing reliable service in other states and parts of Latin America where they operate.
Critics also pointed to Avangrid’s efforts to rollback provisions of a rooftop solar program in Maine.
“We feel past performance is a better indicator of future performance than ads and promises,” said Paul Gibson, co-founder of the statewide advocacy group Retake Our Democracy.
Gibson and others listed poor rankings for Avangrid’s utility in Maine and noted that the company has been hit with millions of dollars in penalties and regulatory enforcement actions.
Even a member of Maine’s legislature has warned New Mexico regulators about approving the merger.
Spanish officials also announced in June that Iberdrola executives would be investigated over alleged bribery, breach of privacy and fraud. The company has maintained that the executives did nothing wrong.
A hearing examiner for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission had blasted Avangrid and Iberdrola earlier this year for failing to disclose information about the problems elsewhere.
Avangrid has dismissed the criticisms, saying PNM will remain a New Mexico-based utility with “strong ties and responsiveness to the communities and people it serves.”
Supporters, including statewide business groups, say Avangrid and Iberdrola could drive more renewable energy development in the state.
Experts have suggested that New Mexico could serve as a platform for producing power that could be exported to larger markets, but critics worry the state’s customers would be reduced to a secondary consideration for Avangrid and Iberdrola as they look to expand their renewable energy holdings.
When asked how it would work to ensure that New Mexico customers are protected, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office said in a statement Monday that it “will enforce the law and demand improved customer service.” Balderas, a Democrat, has come under fire for his connections to one of the New Mexico-based attorneys hired by Iberdrola and for dropping his opposition to the deal.
Balderas has argued that recent concessions by the companies will result in more economic benefits for Indigenous communities and workers. On Monday, he said the state can’t afford to miss “a historic opportunity to modernize our energy infrastructure for both production and distribution.”
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has voiced her support, saying the merger would help New Mexico meet its mandate for having carbon-free electricity generation in the next two decades.
Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email Monday that anything that contributes to generating renewable energy to combat climate change and establishing meaningful economic opportunities in affected communities is welcome.
However, she added that anything that would harm New Mexicans now or in the future or result in residents being anything less than a first priority would be problematic.
“The governor’s expectation is that the PRC, as an independent body, will rigorously and thoroughly vet the proposal as to the prospective benefits and/or drawbacks New Mexicans could expect,” she said. “Like all interested New Mexicans, she will continue to follow the course of the application as well as constructive professional and public feedback.”
The hearing will wrap up later this month, but it could be early fall before regulators make a final decision.