No Sunset for Solar - Yet

Tensions ran high March 1 during the normally placid monthly meeting of the Arizona Solar Energy Advisory Council. Instead of discussing new ways to promote the use of solar energy, the council unexpectedly found itself fighting for survival.

Days earlier, the Arizona Senate had voted to eliminate the council after an unknown state Department of Commerce official had erroneously told Senate staffers the council was "not active."

Not only did the Department of Commerce mislead the Senate, no one from Commerce bothered to tell council members that their group was on the legislative chopping block, even though Commerce officials knew for several weeks the council was in jeopardy.

"We should have been informed," council member Helmut Frank, a Tucson economist, told Commerce officials during the March 1 meeting.

The volunteer council, which receives no state funding, is appointed by the governor and is Arizona's only official effort to promote solar energy.

Council members were stunned over the Department of Commerce's effort to undermine its existence.

"I'm pissed, quite frankly," says council chairman Dan Aiello. "This is an extremely active group. We meet once a month at our own expense."

The council holds its meetings at the Department of Commerce and provides recommendations for legislation and other actions to the department's Energy Office.

"With the demise of this group, there will not be any group that can represent and advise and assist the state's participation in the development of solar and renewable energy," Aiello says.

The Department of Commerce sent some members of its top brass to the March 1 meeting to quell the uproar, but their appearance did little to calm the situation.

Council members were upset when Department of Commerce assistant deputy director Jack Haenichen told them the department would not ask the Legislature to spare the council.

"We do not lobby for boards or commissions," Haenichen explained.
Haenichen's excuse was unsatisfactory to council member James Warnock, who asked Haenichen whether the department believed the Solar Energy Advisory Council was an "asset" to the state.

Haenichen responded angrily.
"I think that is an unfair question. It is rude," he said.
Pressed further, Haenichen wavered, saying, "We do not wish for the council to go away."

While Haenichen may not want the council to go away, the department is doing little to help it survive--beyond providing tips to council members on how to approach legislators.

The bill eliminating the council is now inthe House Government Operations Committee, where a hearing was scheduled this week.

Arizona state government has been no friend to solar energy. The Legislature withdrew all funding for solar projects in 1990 and the Department of Commerce plans no new initiatives to promote solar or other alternative energy systems.

The legislation to eliminate the Solar Energy Advisory Council is part of a bill to consolidate or phase out a number of other commissions, councils and boards that were no longer useful, says the bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Brenda Burns.

The housecleaning legislation was not meant to be controversial, Burns says. Her staff contacted state agencies that oversee advisory panels before deciding which should be eliminated.

"The only note that I have next to the Solar Energy Advisory Council is that it is okay per Department of Commerce for elimination," Burns tells New Times.

The effort to kill the council comes as the group begins to have a greater impact. The council has helped draft and introduce fivebills in the Legislature this session--three have already passed the House. The most controversial bill would prevent homeowners' associations from arbitrarily prohibiting rooftop solar energy equipment. Another bill would require new homes to contain plumbing that would allow for simple installation of asolar water heater. The third bill would encourage energy efficiency in new construction.

Late last week, there were some signals that Commerce may have had a change of heart about not speaking up for the council.

Burns says she received a call on March 1 from a Department of Commerce official who softened the department's earlier position that the council was a do-nothing board.

Burns says she has "no problem" retaining the council if it is "providing some assistance in the area of solar energy."

She says if the advisory council requests it, she would ask House Government Operations Committee chairman Ned King to remove the advisory council from her bill.

"It just isn't something that is going to be a problem," she says.
While the Legislature seems prepared tokeep the advisory council around, relations between it and the Department of Commerce have hit a new low.

"It is almost unconscionable to me that Commerce would have taken a neutral position" on whether to support the advisory council before the Legislature, Aiello says.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty