Solar Energy

Arizona Clean Power Initiative for 2018 Will Help the Future and Save Money, Campaign Firm Says

A potential clean-energy initiative might energize the ballot box for Arizonans this November.

As rumors of a potential clean-energy initiative swirl, the head of the campaign firm behind the successful minimum-wage election in 2016 said he's indeed working on a planned measure for this November.

"Renewable energy is now cheaper than conventional," said Bill Scheel, founding partner for Javelina. "[This] will save us money."

Javelina ran the 2016 Fair Wages and Healthy Families Initiative, which voters approved 58-42.

For now, Scheel's keeping the public in the dark on the energy plan's details. The potential campaign has made no formal announcement. Scheel wouldn't say what, precisely, the initiative would cover or who's backing it.

Phoenix New Times received tips that a possible energy initiative was on the works and made a few inquiries among people who might know such things. New Times contacted Democratic organizer Tom Reade, who helped in 2016 with the planned Yes on AZ Solar initiative. Reade said Javelina was handling PR for the effort.

Scheel called back and said he'd heard we were poking around on the question.

Scheel confirmed a group of people — he won't say who — are planning an initiative for 2018 and that he was working with them. He began reciting a litany of complaints against the status quo, saying that the Arizona Legislature and Corporation Commission were "rolling back" renewable programs and "working to undermine clean-energy regulations."

The only way to stop the trend and introduce progressive policies was at the ballot, Scheel said.

Arizona has the most solar-energy resources of just about any state, but the rooftop-solar industry hasn't thrived here like many believe it should. Figuring out the proper level of subsidies has been an ongoing fight — and Democrats say the other side is playing dirty. According to local election legend (never mind the fact that it hasn't been proven true), the Koch Brothers oozed "dark" money for the 2014 campaigns of two pro-utility commissioners and Arizona Public Service. The ACC in late 2016 voted to allow utilities like APS to reduce the payments for energy generated by home systems.

Paul Walker, executive director of ConservAmerica, a pro-renewables Republican group, said he's been hearing rumors since November that Arizona voters might see an energy-related ballot-measure in 2018. He heard it will be two initiatives by the same group — one would raise the Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff, a tax implemented in 2006 that all utility customers pay to help develop renewable energy sources. The initiative might also mandate a higher goal for electricity generated by renewable energy, he said. The current goal is 15 percent renewables by 2025.

Walker claims backers of the initiative are prepared to put up $7 million in funding. Although he likes solar power in general, Walker said he wouldn't vote for the kind of initiative people in the energy industry are gossiping about. He claims an initiative that mandates a high level of renewable energy will cause costs to spike.

Scheel said the measure would, in fact, do just the opposite.

"In the long run, it will lower utility bills for everyone," he said.

Remaining enigmatic, Scheel added that he's had no talks with representatives of the rooftop-solar industry.

The initiative won't focus on solar power, he said, while acknowledging that solar power will be part of it. Two overarching aims will be to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and help air quality. But he begged off more questions about what the measure might actually try to accomplish.

"We want to be really careful with our language. We know utility companies will try to use everything in their power to try to undercut it," Scheel said. "It's much bigger than solar. ... It will lead to the use of much more clean, renewable energy over the next couple of decades. It certainly will not increase anyone's power bill."

Arizonans might have seen an energy measure on the 2016 ballot but for some hardcore backroom dealing. As utilities and rooftop-solar boosters battled that year, the solar industry suddenly announced it was plunking down at least $3 million to put a pro-solar bill on the ballot. Arizona Representative Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, then announced that she would launch a separate ballot-measure campaign to thwart the solar industry's effort. The two warring sides calmed down after Governor Doug Ducey played the role of peacemaker, and they reached a compromise that involved the withdrawal of all the planned initiatives.

The planned initiative would need to submit 150,642 valid voter signatures by July 5 to make the November 2018 ballot, or 225,963 signatures if the campaign aims to amend the state Constitution.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern