Solstice Retreat

The Arizona Corporation Commission appears poised to toss solar power into the shadows

As the sun reaches its highest point in the sky this week with the passing of summer solstice, I'm amazed that Arizona regulators are retreating from the state's modest commitment to develop a solar energy industry.

It's not as if Arizona is busting its budget on solar. Instead, the state remains firmly committed to continuing its polluting and increasingly expensive reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy for decades to come.

This is an archaic policy that consumers should no longer tolerate. It's way past time for consumers to pressure the five members of the Arizona Corporation Commission and demand they greatly increase the state's support for dependable renewable energy sources -- the best of which is solar.

Tucson Electric Power's Springerville Solar Array is the most productive photovoltaic generating plant in the world.
courtesy of Tucson Electric Power Company
Tucson Electric Power's Springerville Solar Array is the most productive photovoltaic generating plant in the world.

The commissioners are currently debating new regulations that will have a profound impact on the development of the state's solar energy industry, with the commission's next public meeting on renewable energy issues tentatively scheduled for July 13. While a final decision on the rules is months away, it's clear that the majority of the commission members want to reduce state support for solar.

That would be a serious mistake. And what better time than now -- during the year's longest days -- to shed some light on what's going on?

This year, Arizona utilities will spend about $12 million on solar electric generation. That's chump change, considering that Arizona consumers spend this much money every single day for electricity from nonrenewable and polluting oil, gas and coal plants plus inherently hazardous nuclear power.

The corporation commission currently requires that utilities generate 1.1 percent of their electric power from renewable sources by 2007. Customers pay a small surcharge each month, and that money is turned over to the utilities to find renewable energy sources.

The commission's Environmental Portfolio Standard (EPS) surcharge on residential customers is capped at 35 cents per month, while commercial businesses pay up to $13 monthly. The surcharge raises about $20 million a year -- of which 60 percent, or $12 million, has been dedicated to solar for the past four years.

Most of the EPS surcharge funds have been used by Arizona Public Service Company and Tucson Electric Power Company to construct two of the largest solar electric generating stations in the nation. APS's solar array at the Prescott Airport produces 1.8 megawatts of power. TEP's Springerville Solar Array generates 4.6 megawatts and is the most productive facility of its type in the world.

In the last three years, about $2 million a year of EPS funds has been used to subsidize the installation of solar systems for homes and businesses that are connected directly to the electric grid. I'm one of the handful of Arizonans who have taken advantage of this program; I installed a solar system on my home.

The corporation commission staff now wants utilities to generate 5 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015 and 15 percent by 2025. The EPS surcharge would be increased to about $60 million a year.

But commissioners Marc Spitzer, Mike Gleason and chairman Jeff Hatch-Miller have all suggested they are in favor of eliminating the staff's proposed requirement that 20 percent of the renewable energy come from solar.

If the 20 percent guarantee is removed, solar industry leaders say utilities will stop building large-scale solar generating plants and investing in solar electric systems on homes and businesses. Instead, Arizona's utilities would simply meet their renewable energy requirements by buying wind and geothermal power from neighboring states -- primarily California and New Mexico.

The three commissioners say they want to remove the guarantee to force solar to compete directly with other forms of renewable energy such as wind, biomass (wood), geothermal and biogas.

"I tend to believe in a level playing field," Hatch-Miller tells me. "Let's bring the best technology to the market and it will take the lion's share."

Gleason is particularly hostile to solar. "Its future does not depend on the extent to which it is subsidized in Arizona," he wrote in a June 1 letter to his fellow commissioners. "It would be unwise business practice to mandate long-term investments in solar electric generation before the efficiencies of emerging solar technologies can be evaluated."

Gleason misses the point. If Arizona wants to take advantage of what will be a huge world market for solar energy, it needs to build the infrastructure and expertise to position the state in order to compete with other regions of the world. Japan and Germany are far ahead of the United States in the use of solar energy.

While I agree with Hatch-Miller that competition certainly makes sense to spur innovation and lower costs, there is no doubt that solar energy remains Arizona's most important, long term renewable energy source. It's just dumb to reduce funding for an industry that is just now finally getting a toehold in the market.

"Our main concern is that any effort to eliminate solar electric at this point in time derails efforts underway . . . to establish an industry base in Arizona to support this technology," says Sean Seitz, president of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.

Rather than reducing the subsidy to the solar industry, the corporation commission should be pushing forward with comprehensive policies that will propel Arizona to the forefront in the research, design, manufacture and installation of solar electric systems.

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