Energy giant promises more perks in New Mexico utility case

Energy giant promises more perks in New Mexico utility case

A top executive with global energy giant Iberdrola is promising more perks if local governments and others in New Mexico clear the way for a proposed multibillion-dollar utility merger that could affect the way power is produced and distributed in the state for years to come,

Iberdrola’s chief development officer, Pedro Azagra Blázquez, was cross-examined Wednesday during the first day of an evidentiary hearing on the proposed acquisition of Public Service Co. of New Mexico by Iberdrola subsidiary Avangrid. Utility executives and other experts will be testifying over the next several days.

It will likely be fall before the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission makes a final decision on the merger.

Supporters say the deal could boost renewable energy development in New Mexico. Critics are concerned about the potential for rate increases and Connecticut-based Avangrid’s track record of poor customer service and power outages among the utilities it operates on the East Coast.

Azagra Blázquez acknowledged during questioning by attorneys for the state’s largest county and one of its largest water utilities that Iberdrola and Avangrid would be willing to offer more rate credits and economic development funds if the groups would not oppose the deal.

He also confirmed that the company would be willing to include $1 million for a science and technology scholarship program for students in New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area. Another $1 million would go toward apprenticeship programs for high school and college students there.

Of the 150 jobs Iberdrola and Avangrid are promising, most would be in the Albuquerque area, he said.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico serves more than a half-million customers around the state. Consumer advocacy groups and environmentalists have been pushing for funds for communities in more rural areas, particularly those in northwestern New Mexico that will be affected by the expected closures of a pair of coal-fired power plants in which PNM is vested.

Azagra Blázquez also was questioned about the board that would control the New Mexico utility if the merger is approved. He said Spain-based Iberdrola would subject itself to the authority of the state Public Regulation Commission, dismissing concerns that have been raised about regulatory control given the corporate structure of Iberdrola and Avangrid.

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the environmental group New Energy Economy, objected to testimony about the perks. As a consistent critic of the deal, she suggested company executives were making side deals contrary to rules that all parties must be a part of settlement talks.

She called the promises “Christmas tree bonuses,” saying more details were needed.

The proposed merger has spurred questions about the companies’ transparency, as well as conflict-of-interest allegations that stretch to the state attorney general’s office.

During questioning, Azagra Blázquez could not say how customers’ monthly bills would be affected by the additional proposed rate credits, economic development funds or any investments in generation and transmission infrastructure that could be used to export power to markets beyond New Mexico.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the merger, but her office said this week that any proposal that fails to make New Mexico residents a first priority would be problematic.