SUNDOWN FOR SOLARARIZONA'S ONCE-PROMISING INDUSTRY HAS WITHERED FROM NEGLECT
In an old school a block from the State Capitol sit 62 electric solar panels, donated to the state Department of Commerce's Energy Office six years ago by Phoenix developer and solar-energy advocate John F. Long.
While some of the panels are cracked and shattered, many only need to be dusted off. That's one of the beauties of solar electric panels--they need very little maintenance, and can last just about forever. Next to the panels are several power converters that can transform the 12-volt electricity generated by the panels into 110-volt household current. A few simple connections and a stack of batteries could put the 55-watt panels into action, generating enough power for a house.
For several years, Energy Office employee John Beimfohr tried to convince his superiors to take the panels outside and put them under the sun to demonstrate that solar energy is not a distant technology.
"They really could have been used as a high-profile, educational tool, but that seemed totally unacceptable to those in the decision-making capacity," says Beimfohr, whose job as the state's solar communities planner was eliminated on June 30, 1991. He's now president of Arizona Solar Energy Association.
The squandering of donated solar hardware is just one example of the systematic dismantling of the state's effort--launched by former Governor Bruce Babbitt--to develop a solar-energy industry. In the last six years, the Solar Energy Commission, which once supported millions of dollars of research and development in solar technologies, has been absorbed and decimated by the state Department of Commerce. Where there were once nine employees working full-time on solar, now there is one, and that position is to be phased out soon.
"Since the Commerce Department took it over, there has been less and less activity with solar and more concentration on other energy activities," says Robert Sears, director of program development for energy systems at ASU's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "The solar aspect has just been allowed to atrophy and die."
As federal funding for solar technology and research dried up during the Reagan and Bush administrations, so did interest at the state level. The Arizona State Legislature withdrew all funding and staffing for solar projects three years ago. The projects that survived have been financed primarily by funds received by Arizona from oil companies that were found guilty of overcharging consumers in the 1970s.
Funding was also eliminated at the University of Arizona's Solar Energy Research Facility, where more than 100 solar panels still sit on a UofA building rooftop, unused. The former director of the program, Don Osborn, has moved on to Sacramento Municipal Utility District to oversee the development of communitywide solar-powered homes, a program that has become a model.
But in Arizona, which has the fewest cloudy days of any state, solar energy is nearly invisible. "You never see anything about what's happening in Arizona, because nothing is happening," says Sears.
And as the sun sets today, the last vestige of Arizona's commitment to developing a viable solar industry will vanish. Arizona Solar Energy Advisory Council, a 15-member panel that has guided actions of the state's solar policies, will see the terms of its members expire. As of last Monday, Governor Fife Symington had not appointed a new council.
Councilmember John Miller, a Tucson homebuilder, says the council is frustrated with the lack of support from state leaders, but he hopes the governor will keep the council alive. Miller says a Symington aide told him the governor is behind in making more than 1,500 appointments to various state panels. Councilmembers plan to keep meeting, even if the governor doesn't appoint a new council.
"Right now we have been stifled and not able to get things done," Miller says. "But nobody's going to give up."
The state's abandonment of solar energy comes in the face of widespread public support for developing solar and other renewable energy resources.
In 1989 and 1990, a state legislative task force conducted extensive public hearings and workshops with the goal of developing a sustainable energy policy and implementation plan for Arizona. The task force put solar energy at the top of the list, saying the state "should devote additional economic resources to further the state's solar and renewable energy research."
Rather than turning up the voltage, the state formed another committee--the Energy Policy Implementation Advisory Council--which booted solar energy from the top of the priority list to the bottom. The advisory council, which has been meeting for about a year, has made emergency preparedness the top goal of the state Energy Office.
Jack Haenichen, Energy Office director, says, "We are not going to drop all that we do here and focus just on emergency preparedness." Nevertheless, Haenichen confirms that the amount of time and money devoted to solar programs has decreased markedly in the last few years.
Miller says the policy-implementation council had no business moving solar off the top of the list. "I think that is illegal," he says. "Their job is to implement policies, not to restate priorities."
The state's turn away from solar comes at a time when solar technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. Once the national leader in per capita use of solar water heaters, Arizona now lags behind California, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico.
The production of photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, is increasing at a 25 percent clip per year. And the cost of producing electricity from photovoltaics has plummeted from 50 cents per kilowatt hour five years ago to 22 cents today. The cost is closing in on what utilities charge customers--the typical Arizona Public Service Company rate costs consumers about 10 cents per kilowatt hour.
Solar advocates say the state should get back into the act by establishing standards and certification guidelines to assure residential customers that they are buying good products. The industry shot itself in the foot in the 1970s when fly-by-night operators descended on the state, selling inferior solar water heaters at high prices to take advantage of state and federal tax credits.
Not all is bleak on the solar front.
Late last week, a team of ASU engineering students was guiding its sleek, solar-powered vehicle, named the Solar Phoenix, through the Great Plains in Sunrayce 93. As the students closed in on the final legs of the Dallas-to-Minneapolis race, they were in 12th place among the 36 entries.
Not bad for a state that has thrust solar energy into the shadows.