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Residential solar panel

Solar panels cover a section of a Flagstaff home. A new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association expects Arizona to more than double its solar capacity in the next five years. 

Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun

Any time that the Arizona Legislature is in session, renewable energy is bound to be in the news.

But not because the Republican majority and governor support it. Despite representing one of the sunniest, windiest states in the nation, the GOP does its best to ignore the advice of economists and voter opinion by passing bills that downplay renewables any chance it gets.

Most likely that’s because the state’s major utilities have yet to go all in for renewables, and they deploy their lobbyists and campaign cash during the legislative session in a full-court press to maintain the status quo.

As a result, most of what the legislative majority manages to accomplish on solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power is reactive. This session, in the face of an initiative signature campaign to require Arizona’s regulated utilities to generate 50 percent of their power from renewables by 2030, the GOP and Arizona Public Service went into hyperdrive.

GLARING FLAWS

First, they passed a bill, which Gov. Ducey signed, that said even if the initiative passed, any violation would be subject to a fine of no more than $5,000 and as little as $100.

But after legislative attorneys pointed out that the bill was almost certainly unconstitutional, APS lobbyists came up with a different tack: A nearly identical, competing ballot measure, except that most of the measure could be ignored if utility regulators conclude the effect would "adversely affect" the affordability or cost of electric bills, the reliability of the electrical grid, or "the well-being of this state."

Senate Republicans endorsed the plan and have sent it to the House.

During debate, they said they were concerned that the 50 percent standard would be ruinously expensive and leave customers without power during extended cloudy or windless periods. Backing them up was a study by an in-house APS economist, who extrapolated higher energy rates into diminished buying power across the state and thousands of lost jobs.

But the study had some glaring flaws, as other energy experts pointed out. The biggest was that it assumed the Palos Verde nuclear plant would be shut down, even though the grassroots initiative now collecting signatures specifically allows it to stay open. Another is no allowance for advances in energy storage efficiency when battery technology is almost certain to improve, say experts.

Then there are the counter studies that review what has actually happened to rates and power supply in states that have upped their renewable energy mandates, including in Arizona. One was by Wesley Herche, the Associate Director of Research at the ASU Global Security Initiative, and a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability. His conclusion: “In the 32 states that had a renewable portfolio standard from 2005–2012, there is, on average, no correlated rate increase. And numerous states that achieved a renewable portfolio standard even saw a decrease in rates.”

RENEWABLES ARE LEAST COSTLY

Herche also noted that a study from the U.S. Department of Energy looked at rates from 2010 to 2013 and found that complying with renewable standards accounted for less than 2 percent of average retail electricity rates.

Another recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at what would happen if the state of New Mexico put in place a 50 percent Renewable Energy Standard by 2030. Their study concluded that if lowering the cost of electricity was the long-term goal, “renewable energy, not gas, is the state’s lowest-cost long-term solution.”

The study further pointed out that the “least-cost future is dominated by wind and solar,” which “would create several thousand jobs in construction, operations, and maintenance.” The researchers added that if the state raised the renewable energy standard “most monthly electric bills for most households will actually be lower than they were in 2016.”

Republican lawmakers, however, continue to defend coal and gas as supporting well-paying jobs, no matter the cost to the planet of the greenhouse gases that burning fossil fuels imposes. Exhibit A, they say, is taking place in Page, where residents are displaying “Yes to NGS” signs in their windows. They are referring to the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, which is scheduled to close in 2019 after its owners determined it was no longer competitive.

GOP CAN DO BETTER

But leaving aside the arguments over whether NGS should be shuttered, there is nothing in the initiative that precludes Arizona utilities from burning coal or gas – those fuels are part of the other 50 percent in the power mix, along with nuclear power.

Republicans and utilities like APS who want to stonewall renewables need to come up with better arguments – or just come clean on why the status quo is so much better. So far, the move toward solar and wind has not bankrupted any utility nor sent energy bills soaring in any of the states where renewable portfolios have been tried. The current standard in Arizona is 15 percent renewables by 2020. If 50 percent by 2030 makes the November ballot, we’ll hope for a more robust and honest debate on the issues than has taken place so far.

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