Solstice Retreat

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

Even some utility execs understand that.

"We need incentives to help establish solar manufacturing facilities in Arizona," says Tom Hansen, vice president and technical advisor for Tucson Electric Power. Hansen oversees TEP's groundbreaking Springerville Solar Array, one of the world's most productive solar electric generating stations.

Hansen tells me that Arizona has the potential to produce nearly its entire demand for electricity by dedicating 400 square miles of Arizona's 114,000-square-mile land base to solar arrays using today's photovoltaic technology. That's less than one-third of 1 percent of Arizona's land.

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.

While the price of solar is slightly higher than other renewable energy sources and about twice as high as fossil fuels and nuclear, the cost is declining at an average of 5 percent a year. It's not going to be long before solar will be competitive with fossil fuels and there will be a huge demand for solar technology.

Few places in the world have a better opportunity to rapidly expand the use of solar electricity -- not only from large-scale utility plants such as the Springerville facility, but also by installing tens of thousands of photovoltaic systems on the rooftops of homes and businesses.

Maricopa County is growing at an amazing rate of 100,000 new residents a year. The Legislature should consider requiring builders to install solar electric panels on new homes. This would provide a dramatic boost to the solar industry while greatly reducing the need for new fossil fuel and nuclear power plants in the future.

Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power -- along with Salt River Project, which is not regulated by the commission -- already have subsidized programs under which consumers can purchase solar electric systems for their homes and businesses and tie directly into the utility grid.

About 100 homeowners and businesses have installed solar electric systems in the last few years. I put a 1-kilowatt system on my cabin in the Verde Valley last year and it generates all the power used by the house during the day.

At night, I benefit from an APS rate plan in which I only pay 4 cents per kilowatt-hour between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., less than half the regular rate.

The photovoltaic system cost a little over $10,000, installed. APS paid about $4,000 of that, using funds from the commission's Environmental Portfolio Standard surcharge.

In exchange for the APS subsidy, I signed a contract with the utility as a power provider. This allows APS to count the energy produced by my house in its requirement to produce 1.1 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

In addition, I received a $1,000 state tax credit. The solar electric system has cut my monthly power bill by $50. I expect to recoup my initial $5,000 out-of-pocket investment in about nine years. The panels should last another 20 years, providing free power in the daytime.

There is enthusiastic demand for the rooftop solar program, even though the utilities have done little promotion. APS has already allocated $1.5 million of the $2 million it has available this year for subsidized residential and commercial solar electric systems.

Together, large-scale solar energy generating stations and rooftop systems are now producing a little more than 10 megawatts of power in Arizona. Granted, the amount of solar power is only a sliver of the 1,270 megawatts produced by each of the three reactors at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix.

But there is no doubt solar will play a major role in providing power in the very near future.

"The only renewable resource in the long run where there is enough to provide the U.S. energy needs is solar," says Hansen.

Corporation commissioner Kris Mayes (a Republican, as are all her colleagues on the commission) is a strong supporter of solar power. Mayes says that if the commission eliminates the 20 percent set aside for solar, it would likely adopt a rule requiring that up to 25 percent of all renewable energy come mostly from homes and businesses with solar electric systems tied into the grid.

While solar electric systems on homes and businesses is a growing and increasingly important part of Arizona's solar industry, it remains small compared to the amount of power being generated at the utility-run plants in Springerville and Prescott.

And it is at these large-scale plants where great strides have been made in lowering the cost of solar electricity production. It is vital that the state greatly expand the deployment of solar electric on homes and businesses, as well as encourage large-scale production facilities.

"My hope is that we can continue to do both," Mayes says.

I hope so, too.

Last month, Mesa voters approved $84 million in tax breaks to lure a Bass Pro Shop to the Riverview on Dobson. Those voters would have been better off investing that money in the solar energy industry.

Helping underwrite the state's solar industry would have attracted worldwide attention and helped spur the creation of possibly thousands of high-tech jobs in Mesa.

Instead, Mesa got a tackle shop.

Developers promised Mesa voters that Bass Pro would attract millions of customers across the Valley and the Southwest to shop at the 200,000-square-foot glorified bait shop. But to land a Bass Pro Shop, taxpayers would have to give up tens of millions of dollars in incentives.

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