Clean energy showdown in Arizona
National politics, with all its sturm und gaffe, tends to suck up all the attention. But there are several state fights going on that could have huge effects on the future of clean energy. A while back I highlighted the impending vote over Michigan’s renewable energy standard. Now let’s have a look at Arizona.
This post will get into some detail, so for those with short attention spans, here’s the take-home: Arizona has unbounded potential for solar and a rapidly growing solar industry, but it’s also got a government recently overrun by corrupt right-wingers. This year, the unbounded potential clashes with the corrupt right-wingery in the form of elections to an extremely important state commission that you’ve never heard of. At stake: whether Arizona will continue its dramatic solar expansion.
Got that? OK, let’s walk through it.
It’s not just sunlight. A study out of Arizona State University’s business school combined several factors, including costs, to create an “Optimal Deployment of Solar Index.” The No. 1 most promising state for solar production: Arizona.
In 2007, after five years of analysis and drafting, the state implemented a renewable energy standard (RES): 15 percent renewable energy by 2025. Thirty percent of that 15 percent must be distributed energy, which amounts to a carve-out for solar.
It was pioneering, one of a handful of early state renewable-energy rules, but it has since been eclipsed by programs in other states, including neighbors New Mexico (20 percent by 2020) and Colorado (30 percent by 2020). As modest as it now looks, it was enough to kick off serious growth in solar. In the second quarter of 2012, Arizona installed more new solar capacity than any state but California. And with 448 megawatts of solar on the ground, the state is now up to third in total installed capacity:
Solar is poised for huge growth in Arizona, especially if the renewable standard is strengthened.
Now, let’s look at an odd feature of Arizona state politics. As you may or may not know, in every state power utilities are governed by public utilities commissions that set electricity rates, plan for transmission lines, etc. In most states, the PUC is established by the legislature and staffed by appointment of the governor.
Arizona is different. It is one of only seven states where the PUC is directly established by the state constitution, making it, in effect, a fourth branch of government. It is one of only 13 states where the members are elected rather than appointed. And it is one of only a small handful of states where PUCs are both constitutional and elected. Because it is granted broad rule-making authority by the constitution, the opaquely named Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) has incredible power. It has the final say on rates, safety rules, and public service requirements. It does not need its decisions approved by the legislature. It unilaterally established the RES in 2007.
That makes it a key lever for small-d democratic control of energy policy. In Arizona, elections to the ACC are extremely significant. The state’s clean-energy efforts are on the line.
As it happens, in the great Tea Party Surge of 2010, Arizona ended up with one of the loopiest far-right legislatures in the U.S., and in Jan Brewer, one of the loopiest governors. The legislature has become famous for its draconian immigration law. Brewer has become famous for packing the state’s courts with far-right judges and outsourcing prisons to close associates. And let’s not forget Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (America’s sheriff!), last seen investigating Obama’s birth certificate while failing to investigate underage sex crimes. It’s a crony-fest over there.
In the same 2010 surge, two Republicans were elected to the ACC, which brought the commission total to three Republicans, two Democrats.
Clean energy policy had been somewhat bipartisan in Arizona. It was an all-Republican ACC that passed the RES in 2007. But 2010 brought a different sort of Republicans.
In July 2011, the three Republicans on the ACC outvoted the two Democrats to allow one of the state utilities a waiver whereby it could substitute a 13-megawatt trash-to-power plant for solar in meeting its RES obligations. (The waiver was challenged in court but dismissed by one of the aforementioned judges, so it’s just recently become official.)
Note that trash incineration was specifically excluded from the RES in 2007 — it pollutes too much. The project’s backers concede that 10 percent of the trash burned will be non-biogenic (synthetic junk like plastics, which release dioxins and an array of other pollutants when burned), but even that figure is based, according to a Sierra Club brief against the project, “upon the testimony of a single witness who has a financial interest in the matter.” Ninety percent “substantially exceeds the biogenic contribution to electricity produced at any [waste-to-energy] facility in existence.”
The actual data suggest that biogenics compose 60 to 70 percent of municipal waste, which means 30 to 40 percent will be plastics and other pollutants-to-be. That’s unfortunate, since the plant is to be built in Phoenix, one of the top 10 worst air-quality areas in the country. Phoenix, those of you with maps will note, is not in Arizona’s rural northwest Mojave County. Nonetheless, the Phoenix plant will count toward the RES obligations of the Mojave Electric Cooperative.
The utility says the waste-burning plant would reduce ratepayer costs relative to solar, but according to Democratic Commissioner Paul Newman, “the trash-burner costs almost twice as much to build and twenty times more to run,” judgments affirmed by data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Newman also says that the “ACC decision to substitute a trash burner for the RES solar requirement essentially kills utility-scale solar in Mohave County for the next decade.”
As a final grace note: it turns out that the company behind the waste-to-energy project, Reclamation Power Group, is run by one Ron Blendu, brother to Bob Blendu, who served as a Republican in the state legislature with … wait for it … the three Republicans currently staffing the ACC. Cozy, isn’t it?
Meanwhile, the Arizona legislature has long worked (without success) to kill the RES and wrench power over energy policy away from the ACC.
In March, the House passed HB 2789, which would require that ACC’s decisions be approved by a majority in the legislature as well as the governor. Pretty much everyone, including ACC’s top attorney, agrees that it’s unconstitutional. (Tellingly, the Republican chair of the commission, Gary Pierce, thinks it’s just peachy.) So an Arizona Senate committee struck the whole “usurp the ACC” thing and instead inserted language that would cap the state’s renewable energy standard at 15 percent. Except, um, that’s probably unconstitutional too. So the Senate adjourned in May without ever voting on it.
The House and Senate bills, along with four-count-’em-four lawsuits challenging the state RES, trace back to the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing Arizona-based outfit best known for its union-bashing work and ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national conservative political group currently engaged in a jihad against state renewable energy standards.
The ACC’s power over Arizona’s energy policy has been reaffirmed, at least for now. That is the context in which this year’s ACC elections take place. There are three slots open. Both the commission’s Democrats, Sandra Kennedy and Paul Newman, and one of its Republicans, Bob Stump, are up for reelection. (Stump is the main trash-burning booster.)
It will come as no surprise that the divisions between the Dem and GOP candidates pretty well mirrors national divisions over energy. The Dems — the incumbents plus former Citizens Clean Elections Commissioner Marcia Busching — support boosting the RES and accelerating Arizona’s clean-energy expansion. The Republicans — Stump plus Bob Burns and corporate lobbyist Susan Bitter Smith — say that the 15 percent target won’t be raised any time soon, maybe ever.
If Bob Stump is reelected and Bob Burns is elected, the commission will contain four-count-’em-four current or former members of ALEC. Commissioner Brenda Burns served as ALEC president in 1999 and served on its board for nine years. Suffice to say, a three-vote GOP majority on the commission would be tantamount to an RES capped at 15 percent. A Democratic majority would likely mean a higher RES and possibly a revoked waiver for the trash-burning plant in Phoenix (in the event that the state Superior Court, to which Sierra Club has appealed, kicks it back to ACC).
There’s not much question about public opinion in the state. A 2011 poll [PDF] revealed that over 90 percent of Arizonans are willing to pay extra to “increase the amount of our energy needs which are met by renewable sources like wind and solar power.” Some 56 percent were willing to pay $10 more a month. A majority of state voters believe that shifting investments to renewables will be a net job creator. Like 90 percent of Americans, most voters in Arizona support increasing the role of solar power.
If their campaign is any indication, the Republicans will fit right with Arizona state government. Just last week they were fined $29,000 for using public funds meant for primary campaigns on general-election flyers attacking their Democratic opponents. The company that received the public money and printed the flyers is called Americopy. It is owned by big-time Republican donor Alan Heywood.
Guess who serves as a “marketing consultant” [PDF] for Americopy? Why, it’s Republican Gary Pierce, chairman of the ACC. So darn cozy.