Just before Highway 89 leaves the last houses of Doney Park and shoots north past the San Francisco Peaks, it skirts a bank of solar panels that are impossible to miss. Arizona Public Service installed the 500-kilowatt system in 2012 as part of a pilot project to see how boosting solar energy input into the system would affect the electrical grid.
The project, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, will help APS determine how to tweak the grid to deliver reliable power while taking on more energy from the sun.
Under renewable energy advocates’ most optimistic projections, solar panels like the APS array would proliferate across the state as a result of the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly released Clean Power Plan.
After a few days to digest the plan, energy experts in the state were hesitant to call the plan a complete game-changer for renewables. They did say, however, that the final document, even moreso than last year’s draft, contains several promising signs for the development of wind and solar power in Arizona.
“The future for renewables in Arizona is pretty bright,” said Eric Massey, director of the air quality division at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which will be the main player in creating the state’s plan to meet the new clean power rules. “Renewable energies and zero emissions energies have a bit of a leg up in ways now than they might have had in the past.”
Push for renewables
The final version of the Clean Power Plan places a bigger emphasis on renewables than the draft released last year.
The plan projects it will result in renewables making up an even larger percentage of the nation’s energy mix — 28 percent, up from 22 percent in the previous draft.
The biggest change for Arizona in the final plan is a reduction in the emissions targets, from what would have been a 52 percent decrease to a 34 percent decrease in emissions over 2012 levels. But that’s actually a good thing for renewable energy development in the state, said Karin Wadsack, project director in clean energy research and education at Northern Arizona University.
The goals and deadlines under the initial draft would have given the state few options beyond quickly and almost completely transitioning energy production from its coal fleet to natural gas, Wadsack said.
“By allowing more flexibility, the plan will allow Arizona to pursue greater renewable development and more harnessing of energy efficiency as opposed to just switching to natural gas,” she said.
The plan also places more of an emphasis on allowing states to cooperate to meet regional goals, which could spur large-scale renewable energy projects in Arizona because developers would have a larger potential consumer base, said Edward Burgess, staff researcher for the Arizona State University Energy Policy Innovation Council.
That cooperation could open more doors for clean energy developers in Arizona to sell power, or renewable energy credits, to states like California with large mandates, Wadsack said.
She added that retirement of coal generation units related to the Clean Power Plan frees up more space on transmission lines for electricity from renewables.
In another boost for renewable energy, the final EPA rule includes new incentives for states that develop renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in low-income areas before the first compliance deadline in 2022.
Ticking off options
Limitations associated with other options for complying with the EPA’s rule make renewables an attractive solution, Massey said. Additional efficiency-related improvements to coal plants, another option available to utilities, will only accomplish 2 to 4 percent in emissions reductions. Energy efficiency, because it depends so much on human behavior that's hard to predict, can't be included in the state's emissions reduction plan. And switching to natural gas requires additional transmission lines for natural gas and electricity.
“The answer I’m hearing is that infrastructure (in the state) is not ready to support an immediate shift to natural gas,” Massey said.
At the same time, new storage capabilities like giant batteries and more flexible grid response are helping solve reliability and grid stability problems that have long hindered solar and wind power, said Amanda Ormond, Arizona representative for Interwest Energy Alliance and Advanced Energy Economy, two renewable-energy business associations. Utilities are also improving strategies like incentive programs for customers to reduce energy usage during peak hours, which help reduce demand to better match what renewables can provide.
A breeze to achieve?
Despite the fact that the state’s attorney general on Wednesday signed on to a statement calling the the EPA’s regulations “devastating” and requesting they be put on hold, experts from across the state agreed the Clean Power Plan’s target won’t be hard for Arizona to meet.
The plan complements the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard, which puts the state on track to get 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025, said Stan Reynolds, a University of Arizona economics professor.
What experts couldn’t say for sure is whether Arizona will exceed that 2025 renewables target.
Reynolds, who focuses on energy and environmental economics, wasn’t so sure that would happen.
“The (renewable portfolio standard) has spurred a lot of growth in solar in this state both utility scale and distributed. It has been really important and will continue to be. The CPP probably reinforces that,” Reynolds said. “At this point I’m a little skeptical it will advance renewables beyond what the (renewable portfolio standard) is mandating in this state.”
Ormond agreed that the Clean Power Plan may not transform the state’s, or the nation’s, energy landscape in the near future. Instead, she compared the plan’s effects to those of the foundational environmental legislation that makes such emissions regulations possible.
“With the Clean Air Act I'm not sure anybody knew how far-reaching it would be,” Ormond said. “This is a fundamental change to how energy will be produced.”