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NextEra Wind Farm

Wind turbines at NextEra's wind farm in Northern Arizona stand sentinel over the Colorado Plateau.

PHOENIX -- A national group led by a billionaire hoping to impeach Donald Trump is helping to fund an effort to force Arizona utilities to get half their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

And unlike a plan by Andy Tobin, what constitutes "renewable'' does not include nuclear.

Bill Scheel, a campaign consultant helping set up the petition drive, said Monday there is a coalition of civic and health organizations who do not believe the current renewable energy standard goals set by the Arizona Corporation Commission are sufficient. They require investor-owned utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from what the regulators consider to be renewable -- meaning pretty much anything but coal and natural gas.

Scheel said the coalition wants a more aggressive approach -- and a focus on health versus energy savings.

"Arizona has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country, hundreds of thousands of asthma sufferers, many of them children,'' he said.

"The biggest cause of this asthma epidemic is air pollution,'' Scheel continued. "We've got to get cleaner air to make a dent in that number of asthma sufferers.''

Barbara Burkholder who handles legislative matters for the Arizona Asthma Coalition, acknowledged that vehicles also are a prime source of pollutants that can affect people. She said that is why her group is backing legislation to enact California-style emission limits on vehicles.

Burkholder said the effects of burning fossil fuels is not limited to those downwind.

She said these power plants pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which raises temperatures. And Burkholder said higher ambient temperatures increase the conversion of other pollutants into ground-level ozone, which is a major irritant and cause of asthma and other breathing problems.

But Scheel said organizers of the initiative do not believe it is appropriate to include nuclear power plants in what is considered renewable, even if they do not have smokestack emissions. Here, too, he said, that is because the focus is on health.

"One of the things we know is that the mining of uranium around the Grand Canyon and on the Navajo Reservation, in fact, has contributed to high rates of cancer in some of those communities,'' Scheel said. "Nuclear is not clean and has health impacts right here in Arizona.''

Getting the 225,953 valid signatures by July 5 to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot won't come cheap. Scheel said it will take "millions of dollars'' not just to qualify for the ballot but then to convince Arizonans to support the measure in November.

That's where NextGen America comes in, a political advocacy group set up by billionaire Tom Steyer.

"Climate issues are something that have always been really, really important to Tom,'' said NextGen spokeswoman Aleigh Cavalier. More to the point, she said that Steyer has concluded that President Trump is not interested in environmental issues.

So Cavalier said he and NextGen have decided it can have the most impact on a state level, especially in places like Arizona, a state that allows voters to set policy at the ballot box. And she said Steyer and NextGen are prepared to do "whatever it takes'' to qualify the measure for the November ballot and convince voters to go along.

Environmental issues aside, Steyer has not hidden his distaste for the president.

He spent $10 million on a television commercial to kick off a campaign to impeach Trump and another $10 million during the tax reform debate to both oppose the Republican plan and renew the call to oust the president. And just last month Steyer announced that he intends to put another $20 million into the dump Trump campaign.

But Cavalier said she does not believe that Steyer's involvement will undermine the Arizona initiative.

"We know that combating climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy is overwhelmingly popular,'' she said.

"This measure has bipartisan support,'' Cavalier continued. "We are simply taking up a fight that's important to Arizona.''

The initiative comes as Tobin, a state utility regulator, has trotted out his own plan to require the utilities subject to commission oversight, to reach an 80 percent renewable standard by 2050.

Tobin's plan is far more comprehensive than simply a goal. It also includes requirements for everything from increased conservation efforts to energy storage to allow the electrons generated by wind and solar to be used when the wind isn't blowing and the sun is not shining.

As to his inclusion of nuclear in that mix, Tobin said the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix was built with consumer dollars. He questioned the advisability of simply abandoning the three-unit plant.

Commission staffers estimate that 26 percent of the power produced in Arizona comes from nuclear.

Anyway, Tobin said it's an open question of whether Palo Verde will even be operating by 2050 or will have been decommissioned.

Tobin said his proposal also has health benefits. For example, he wants to include the burning of "biomass'' to generate power in the list of renewables. Tobin said that makes environmental sense, as clearing the forest of overgrowth will reduce the fuel for fires that cause massive smoke pollution.

The initiative already is getting opposition from Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry who lashed out at "a campaign waged by an out-of-state political activist who won't have to live with the consequences.'' Hamer also said he favors having the commission set policy, at least in part because it can be amended if necessary; voter-approved measures can only be changed by taking the question back to the ballot.

"Why would we want to lock ourselves into one policy prescription when new technologies and scientific findings might emerge on the horizon?'' he asked.

Joe Salkowski, spokesman for Tucson Electric Power and UniSource Energy Services said the companies cannot comment on the initiative until they see the details. But he said they support the general goals of what Tobin is pushing, saying they promote reliability, efficiency and economic development.

But Salkowski, who said the companies are already moving to more renewables and energy storage, said it has not yet taken a formal position on the Tobin plan.

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