Power Vacuum

Arizona's letting the Big Three utilities steal countless millions from us by standing in the way of solar energy

I'll never forget the scorching blast that poured through the open door of the Boeing 707 as I prepared to exit the jet on August 15, 1974, my first summer day in Phoenix.

As a wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshman entering Arizona State University, I was stunned by the intensity of the heat rising from the tarmac at Sky Harbor Airport.

My life in northern Virginia hadn't prepared me for Arizona's piercing sun. That eyeball-drying heat got my attention. So much so that I soon became an avid proponent of solar energy.

Sure, I discovered that the cost of producing electricity from the crude photovoltaic panels made in the 1970s was high, but I became convinced that, sooner or later, Arizona would become the most important solar-energy center in the world.

Three decades have passed, and I'm still waiting for the state to embrace its destiny of capturing the sun's rays and, with them, a brighter economic and environmental future.

What makes this even more possible now is that solar technology is rapidly getting perfected by a cadre of determined advocates. It's no longer a question of cost, but one of political and social commitment to deploy solar photovoltaic panels on such a massive scale that solar energy becomes as ubiquitous as the laptop computer I'm using.

New Mexico's visionary Democratic Governor Bill Richardson calls New Mexico, Arizona and southern California the "Saudi Arabia of solar energy potential."

With this in mind, why shouldn't Arizona take the lead in utilizing low-cost, nonpolluting renewable energy?

Well, because there are three major stumbling blocks: Arizona's three major electric utilities -- Arizona Public Service Company, Salt River Project and, to a lesser degree, Tucson Electric Power.

These three companies sell power to more than five million Arizonans, collecting about $5 billion a year.

By their very nature, they want to keep an iron grip on power generation and on the collection of bucks from consumers.

The thing is, concentration of the electrical industry among a few entities used to make sense because of the high costs involved. But no longer. Off-the-shelf solar technology could transform nearly every customer on the electrical grid into a mini-utility. Everyone could play the power-generation game, and share in the profits that come with it.

Standing in the way of that, however, are the Big Three. They know that solar energy poses a major threat to the guaranteed profits that their shareholders demand -- profits based on building expensive, centralized electricity-generating plants.

That's why they've seized control of the evolution of Arizona's solar industry. And why the utilities' solar programs amount to little more than window-dressing in Arizona.

Here's the bottom line:

The state has about 20,000 megawatts of electrical-generation capacity from coal, gas, oil and nuclear-generating stations. But by the end of this year, it will have only a measly 10 megawatts of solar-generation capacity installed.

This gross imbalance constitutes an economic crime of staggering proportions.

The utilities literally are stealing billions of dollars that could be returned to us through the widespread deployment of solar technology on hundreds of thousands of rooftops throughout the state.

The lack of solar production in Arizona is not surprising given the absence of financial commitment by the utilities to develop and deploy the technology. For decades, the Big Three have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits a year while spending next to nothing on solar energy.

What money is spent on solar and other renewable technologies, such as wind and geothermal, comes directly from consumers. But that only amounted to about $20 million last year, of which nearly all came from surcharges on electric bills for residential and small businesses. Large industrial consumers, such as copper mines and semiconductor-manufacturing facilities, kicked in a laughable $60,000 toward funding renewable-energy programs.

The glaring absence of a serious commitment by the utilities to solar energy is finally starting to attract attention from Arizona's political leaders, including Governor Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano, a recent convert to the potential of solar energy in Arizona, acknowledged in an April 15 keynote speech to the Western Governors' Association that Arizona has not "moved as rapidly as we are capable with respect to developing renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy."

Napolitano said Arizona "ought to be harnessing this free source of energy on a large scale."

She's absolutely right.

But to do this, she and other political leaders -- particularly the five members of the Corporation Commission -- must break the utilities' iron grip on solar technology and enact measures that vigorously encourage development of a solar industry.

If we don't do it, our competitors in New Mexico and California will.

Recently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined Governor Richardson in issuing a bipartisan statement calling for the construction of 30,000 megawatts of clean energy in the West by 2015 -- an amount equal to eight times the energy produced by the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

At the governors' meeting, Richardson declared: "The American West, where the wind blows and the sun shines, has the potential to be a major part of our energy solution. We could become the nation's energy storehouse, and the economic impacts could be extraordinary."

Richardson, the former Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, knows that relying on coal, oil and gas is shortsighted and expensive. And nuclear energy presents its own array of hazards, from the threat of radioactive contamination to the risk of terrorist attacks.

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