Arizona Resolutely Marches Backward on Renewable Energy

Set your clocks back to the Coal Age | Photo: AZ Department of Transportation/Flickr/Creative Commons License

For a few years now, Californians have regarded with wry amusement some of the political antics in the state neighboring our southeastern border. From crackdowns on immigrants to law enforcement agencies run amok, it seems Arizona's government is determined to take every bad idea California ever had, turn it up to 11, and implement it with a straight face. But now Arizona's implementing a bad idea we never had: the state's government is actually cutting back on its commitment to renewable energy.

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Not that that commitment was all that remarkable to begin with: Arizona's Renewable Energy Standard (REST) required that utilities derive 15 percent of their electrical power from renewable sources by the year 2025. Compare that to California's Renewable Portfolio Standard, which required 20 percent renewables three years ago, and which has the state on track to meeting a third of its power requirements from renewables in 2020. California's three largest investor-owned utilities already meet Arizona's 2025 requirements with many percentage points to spare.

In short, our neighbor Arizona has a renewable standard that even its supporters characterize as "modest." Honestly, the better word would seem to be "weak." If there's any state better suited for solar power generation than California, Arizona is it: the state enjoys much brighter and more reliable sunshine in its populated areas, and one of those populated areas -- Phoenix -- constitutes about 500 square miles of sprawl, rooftops, parking lots and vacant lots. With any effort at all, Arizona could be beating its 2025 target right now.

Instead, the state's government is seriously considering lowering its standards.

Last Wednesday, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce introduced a measure that would change the way the Arizona Public Service Company -- the state's largest utility -- calculates the amount of total power consumption before applying the state's REST law. Pierce was last noticed on this side of the state line for his threat to cut off Los Angeles' power in retaliation for a boycott over SB 1070, Arizona's punitive immigration law.

Pierce's REST reform measure says, in part,

"We are concerned that the REST surcharge continues to increase in a manner that may not have been contemplated when the rules were adopted and first implemented. This increase in the surcharge appears to have become burdensome on certain customer classes, including residential customers and other smaller load customers. Under these difficult economic times, we believe it is reasonable to adopt mitigation measures to minimize the surcharge rate's impact on APS's retail customers. Therefore we will require APS, in its calculation of compliance with the REST Rules, to exclude retail sales to its largest customers (3 MW or greater in demand) from its overall retail sales calculation."

By omitting retail customers that consume upwards of three megawatts from consideration before calculating REST requirements, Pearce's measure would effectively change that 15 percent renewables requirement to a 13.5 percent requirement.

According to blogger Will Greene, the "burdensome" surcharge from which Pierce seeks to free residential customers is about equivalent in cost to a medium caramel cappucino per month:

Commissioner Pierce presented the amendment as a way to decrease costs for residential ratepayers, who currently pay under $4/month to fund solar rebates. On average, 2 percent of a ratepayer's electric bill pays for renewable energy (most of which is spent to build solar in Arizona), while roughly 30 percent is spent to import conventional fossil fuels from other states.

The move came in the wake of the all-Republican Corporation Commission slashing rooftop solar incentives offered by the Tucson Electric Power company, completely eliminating those incentives for commercial installations. As justification for the cuts, the Commissioners said that the Tucson utility had already met its renewables goals by last year.

In some ways Arizona has long made more sense on renewables than we have here in California. Much of the public lands utility-scale solar development proposed for Arizona, for instance, has been directed toward disturbed land such as reclaimed mine sites.

But this is just ridiculous. Arizona stands to lose more than most states from the coming human-generated shift in climate. With temperatures likely to climb by 7-9°F by 2100 unless we cut carbon emissions soon, average summer highs in Phoenix will go from around 105° to as much as 114° -- for several months out of the year. Arizona's powers-that-be had better get their heads straight about renewables soon, before their tax base leaves for more temperate places to live.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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