Let's set the record straight:
1. An energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is already underway.
2. Global economic and environmental forces are driving this change.
3. It is urgent that we prepare for and participate in this transition.
A local focus drives this home. How do we secure a future in which our youth can thrive and have access to the water and energy they need? Within the Kit Carson Electric Co-op region, as consumers we collectively spend $100 million per year on energy (electricity, natural gas, propane, gasoline and diesel fuel). (See renewabletaos.org/wp-content/uploads/Population-EnergyProfileCostsKCEC-Service-Area-WMB-RT-020716031419.pdf.)
Where does all of that money go? Some of this money stays within our communities through jobs provided locally by KCEC, New Mexico Gas Company, gas station (convenience store) attendants and tax revenues from sales and income. Unfortunately, most of this money (75%) leaves our region because most of the companies performing the work and their investors reside outside of New Mexico.
One pathway towards local energy sovereignty is renewable energy. RE draws on the abundant power of the wind, sun, earth and water to create energy that adds no carbon to the atmosphere and doesn't contribute to global warming. In fact, RE has become the least expensive forms of energy available. (See lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2018/).
Northern New Mexicans have so far wisely responded to this emerging opportunity by urging KCEC to invest in infrastructure for generating renewable energy locally. The leadership at KCEC have also anticipated challenges (intermittent nature of the sun) and are learning how to incorporate batteries, electricity demand management and electric vehicles into the mix.
One concern brought up recently is that solar arrays have the potential to increase toxicity in the area. We too are concerned about the health impacts of our energy systems, and have taken the full life cycle of solar panels seriously before recommending them as an investment for our area. Although solar panels contain some toxic materials, these are encapsulated behind a tough layer of low-reflective glass and there is little to no danger of those compounds impacting human health until the panels are dismantled. We must become active participants and encourage the use of our resources to regulate the disposition of used panels, learn how to recycle them and use these recycled materials to make new panels to replace them (the "cradle to cradle" mentality). With a panel lifetime of 30 years, we have time to accomplish this. Solar arrays and other renewable energy options actually decrease the health costs associated with fossil fuels.
Because of the decrease in the cost of batteries, electric vehicles (EVs) are coming to the forefront. Electric motors are much simpler than internal combustion engines. No transmission is required in an EV. In addition to having higher efficiencies, EVs have lower operation and maintenance costs (electricity costs about half that of gasoline). Electricity rates are largely constant because they are regulated. The prices of oil, natural gas and coal are volatile, determined on a global market and subject to forces far outside of our community. There is significant potential for major changes in transportation, globally. This will be a disruptive change to the current transportation sector and must be managed carefully.
How do we reconcile our sustainable energy futures with the fact that New Mexico is number 3 in the United States in oil and gas production? Indeed, oil and gas has been a source of significant revenue to the state. Much of the State Investment Council funds, currently valued at $25 billion, were derived from this revenue. It has been an important asset. Nonetheless, if we continue allowing for fossil fuel extraction in our state and do not prepare for a future that is moving away from these resources, then we risk overvaluing assets that are in danger of becoming stranded and of decreased value globally - some say within the next 10 years.
How many people in the world right now are interested in buying an old coal-fired power plant? These dinosaurs are being sold off as scrap, and the extractive industry is hustling to get taxpayers to pay for their bad investments. Do we want to continue to allow outside companies to control our economies? Or can we stand up for local energy and local jobs, and develop local energy expertise?
David R. Muñoz is a member of Renewable Taos and xiili sarkela, a Taoseñx and civil and environmental engineering graduate student, Princeton University.