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NM Rural Renewable Energy Alliance forms to help inform public

LAS CRUCES - Energy costs are rising, particularly in rural areas, and New Mexico is rich in renewable energy resources. It is in this context that the New Mexico Rural Renewable Energy Alliance was formed to help get the word out to the state residents about energy conservation and renewable energy opportunities.

"We are a statewide collaborative of state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations that have an interest in reaching consumers who need to know about renewable energy and energy conservation," said Paul Gutierrez, vice president of New Mexico State University's Outreach Services. "These initiatives have come together to set some educational priorities for reaching consumers across the state."

The concept of the alliance was initiated in response to community members request for a reliable, easy to access and understandable source of information on energy conservation and renewable energy. A source that was consumer-centric, Gutierrez said.

NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service and its Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project are lead members of the alliance that includes New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resource Department, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico Association of Counties, New Mexico Economic Development, USDA Rural Development, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Current-C Energy Systems Inc.

Sandra McCardell, president of Current-C Energy Systems and one of the organizers of the initiative, noted that there are a variety of different programs in New Mexico targeted toward large, utility scale renewable energy systems.

"Our focus is different," she said. "We want to help communities and individuals reduce their energy use and cost, and then potentially produce their own heat or power - now, today. Our goal is to use the technical resources available through NMSU and other institutions to provide and foster programs which can have rapid impact."

The alliance's efforts began with town hall meetings held in Portales, Clayton and Santa Fe in July to hear what needs there are in small towns and rural areas, what resources those places can provide, what information people are seeking and how best to provide it. Additional town hall meetings are planned around the state for September and October.

"There was a lot of interest in renewable energy, particularly on the eastern side of the state, particularly from landowners. Also, many people want to know about energy conservation practices for homeowners and businesses." Gutierrez said. "Those were the two key things that came out of the town meetings in Clayton and Portales. In Santa Fe, the major discussion was around policy issues. What was identified was a lack of good incentives for people to invest in conservation and/or renewable energy."

As a non-lobbyist organization, Gutierrez told the Santa Fe town meeting participants that the alliance would not be promoting policy to the lawmakers but would offer unbiased information so informed decisions can be made by lawmakers and consumers.

"The alliance has an education outreach mission," he said. "We're looking at the continuum of educational needs for energy conservation and renewable energy, in that order - conservation first, renewable energy opportunities next. We're doing that by starting off with the town hall meetings so we can set priorities of where we need to focus and what the interest is for further education and training programs."

Based on the town hall meetings the alliance will formulate a plan to include a Web site that will be a source of information regarding topics of interest to the participants of the town-hall meetings.

"We're not going to reinvent the good information that is already out there. There is lots and lots of good information about energy conservation and appropriate renewable energy technologies. We want the Web site to be a portal where people can come and quickly find what they are looking for," Gutierrez said.

The next step will be to identify a team of resource experts that people can call upon to help answer questions and to give them direction to other sources of information. The team will be formed from the alliance members' experts.

The group's third objective will be to develop an ongoing educational and training program that it hopes will be institutionalized either in the Cooperative Extension model or partnership with some of the member agencies.

"One approach we're talking about is the possibility of a Master Conservationist program that will be based around a train-the-trainer format, much like NMSU's Master Gardener program," Gutierrez said. "The Master Conservationist would be trained in consumer-based water and energy conservation practices so they can be a resource to the communities and its residents."

Gutierrez said there is a strong sense of urgency around the alliance's work when "we think about the low income families in our state and the impact they will feel this winter as they have to heat their homes, put fuel in their cars and put food on the table. All of these tasks have gone up in price since last year. The importance of energy conservation and renewable energy for all consumers has never been as important as it is today."