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Power Vacuum

I'll never forget the scorching blast that poured through the open door of the Boeing 707 as I prepared to exit the jet on August 15, 1974, my first summer day in Phoenix. As a wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshman entering Arizona State University, I was stunned by the intensity of the...
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I'll never forget the scorching blast that poured through the open door of the Boeing 707 as I prepared to exit the jet on August 15, 1974, my first summer day in Phoenix.

As a wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshman entering Arizona State University, I was stunned by the intensity of the heat rising from the tarmac at Sky Harbor Airport.

My life in northern Virginia hadn't prepared me for Arizona's piercing sun. That eyeball-drying heat got my attention. So much so that I soon became an avid proponent of solar energy.

Sure, I discovered that the cost of producing electricity from the crude photovoltaic panels made in the 1970s was high, but I became convinced that, sooner or later, Arizona would become the most important solar-energy center in the world.

Three decades have passed, and I'm still waiting for the state to embrace its destiny of capturing the sun's rays and, with them, a brighter economic and environmental future.

What makes this even more possible now is that solar technology is rapidly getting perfected by a cadre of determined advocates. It's no longer a question of cost, but one of political and social commitment to deploy solar photovoltaic panels on such a massive scale that solar energy becomes as ubiquitous as the laptop computer I'm using.

New Mexico's visionary Democratic Governor Bill Richardson calls New Mexico, Arizona and southern California the "Saudi Arabia of solar energy potential."

With this in mind, why shouldn't Arizona take the lead in utilizing low-cost, nonpolluting renewable energy?

Well, because there are three major stumbling blocks: Arizona's three major electric utilities -- Arizona Public Service Company, Salt River Project and, to a lesser degree, Tucson Electric Power.

These three companies sell power to more than five million Arizonans, collecting about $5 billion a year.

By their very nature, they want to keep an iron grip on power generation and on the collection of bucks from consumers.

The thing is, concentration of the electrical industry among a few entities used to make sense because of the high costs involved. But no longer. Off-the-shelf solar technology could transform nearly every customer on the electrical grid into a mini-utility. Everyone could play the power-generation game, and share in the profits that come with it.

Standing in the way of that, however, are the Big Three. They know that solar energy poses a major threat to the guaranteed profits that their shareholders demand -- profits based on building expensive, centralized electricity-generating plants.

That's why they've seized control of the evolution of Arizona's solar industry. And why the utilities' solar programs amount to little more than window-dressing in Arizona.

Here's the bottom line:

The state has about 20,000 megawatts of electrical-generation capacity from coal, gas, oil and nuclear-generating stations. But by the end of this year, it will have only a measly 10 megawatts of solar-generation capacity installed.

This gross imbalance constitutes an economic crime of staggering proportions.

The utilities literally are stealing billions of dollars that could be returned to us through the widespread deployment of solar technology on hundreds of thousands of rooftops throughout the state.

The lack of solar production in Arizona is not surprising given the absence of financial commitment by the utilities to develop and deploy the technology. For decades, the Big Three have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits a year while spending next to nothing on solar energy.

What money is spent on solar and other renewable technologies, such as wind and geothermal, comes directly from consumers. But that only amounted to about $20 million last year, of which nearly all came from surcharges on electric bills for residential and small businesses. Large industrial consumers, such as copper mines and semiconductor-manufacturing facilities, kicked in a laughable $60,000 toward funding renewable-energy programs.

The glaring absence of a serious commitment by the utilities to solar energy is finally starting to attract attention from Arizona's political leaders, including Governor Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano, a recent convert to the potential of solar energy in Arizona, acknowledged in an April 15 keynote speech to the Western Governors' Association that Arizona has not "moved as rapidly as we are capable with respect to developing renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy."

Napolitano said Arizona "ought to be harnessing this free source of energy on a large scale."

She's absolutely right.

But to do this, she and other political leaders -- particularly the five members of the Corporation Commission -- must break the utilities' iron grip on solar technology and enact measures that vigorously encourage development of a solar industry.

If we don't do it, our competitors in New Mexico and California will.

Recently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined Governor Richardson in issuing a bipartisan statement calling for the construction of 30,000 megawatts of clean energy in the West by 2015 -- an amount equal to eight times the energy produced by the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

At the governors' meeting, Richardson declared: "The American West, where the wind blows and the sun shines, has the potential to be a major part of our energy solution. We could become the nation's energy storehouse, and the economic impacts could be extraordinary."

Richardson, the former Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, knows that relying on coal, oil and gas is shortsighted and expensive. And nuclear energy presents its own array of hazards, from the threat of radioactive contamination to the risk of terrorist attacks.

"We will bring energy dollars back into our economies by showing how reliable our clean-energy sources are, and how many jobs they create, and how they protect our public lands and public health," Richardson said.

Energy demands are growing, and "we can't dig and drill our way out of this situation," the New Mexico governor said. "That's a prescription for the next energy crisis, as well as the loss of economic and environmental benefits we could achieve by taking an alternative path."

New Mexico's goal is for 10 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010.

Schwarzenegger wants to move even more aggressively. He would like to see 50 percent of all new homes in California built to include solar energy, and says the state should produce 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by the end of the century's first decade.

But while California and New Mexico are setting ambitious renewable-energy goals, Arizona is missing the proverbial boat.

Why? Because it won't pressure the utilities to rapidly ramp up the use of renewable energy, especially solar.

The Corporation Commission has set a goal for utilities to produce a mere 1.1 percent of their electricity from renewable-energy sources by 2007. There's no penalty if they fail to meet the target, which none of them will based on current trends.

The commission, which is now holding hearings on the state's renewable-energy policy, must demand that Arizona utilities dramatically expand the use of solar energy. Any commissioner who fails to do so should be thrown out of office.

Meanwhile, the Legislature and the governor need to pass laws requiring steadily increasing renewable-energy use, plus create incentives to create and expand a solar manufacturing industry in Arizona.

Don't let the utilities tell you all this is too expensive. That's self-serving bullshit.

Tremendous advancements in solar technology in the past five years have reduced the cost of producing electricity from solar cells to less than 10 cents per kilowatt. This is rapidly closing in on the cost of producing juice from nuclear, coal and gas-fired plants -- about 5 cents a kilowatt.

(The 5 cents a kilowatt doesn't take into account the huge side effects of nonrenewable power production: air and water pollution. Neither does it address how much it costs the United States, in blood and money, to secure overseas' oil supplies.)

Ironically, the key factor driving down the cost of installing solar-energy systems is the Corporation Commission's meager 1.1 percent renewable-energy goal by 2007.

That installation prices of residential, business and large-scale systems have dropped so much based on such a gentle prod by the state is extremely telling.

It exposes the fact that the Big Three have unconscionably dragged their feet on developing this plentiful and clean energy source.

Even an idiot can see that a higher renewable-energy requirement -- such as California's goal of 20 percent of all electricity produced -- would result in further rapid improvements in solar technology, and a drop in cost.

Especially if there were a financial penalty if the utilities failed to meet the goal.

Unfortunately, only a handful of political leaders in Arizona -- led by state Representative Ken Clark, a Phoenix Democrat -- see the tremendous potential up for grabs.

Clark wisely wants to elevate the Energy Office in the Department of Commerce, which has played a key role in promoting solar energy in the state, to a cabinet-level position. (An award-winning documentary the office produced will be broadcast at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 25, on PBS Channel 8.)

Clark's also backing legislation that would provide property tax breaks to businesses that install solar-electric equipment.

And he wants the state to require that all new schools be equipped with solar energy.

"What's shameful is we just built 100 new schools that are supposed to last 50 years, but none of them is even plumbed and wired to take advantage of renewable energy," he told me.

The House has passed four of Clark's bills that would boost solar energy, but they are all languishing in the Senate.

Even though the utilities' efforts are sadly lacking, there's a ray of hope.

Tucson Electric Power is developing a large-scale solar generating station at its Springerville facility. Tom Hansen, the project's principal engineer, has skillfully put together a prototype plant. And based on the production of solar energy from 38 acres of photovoltaic panels deployed there, he believes that all of Arizona's energy needs (based on 2002 consumption) could be met from a massive solar array that covers 400 square miles.

While that may sound like a lot of land, consider that Arizona covers 114,006 square miles, much of that barren desert.

Unlike conventional generating plants that need expensive ongoing maintenance, there is virtually no further investment needed to keep solar-electric panels running for decades once they are in place.

"The stuff just sits there and runs," Hansen says.

Large-scale solar-electricity generating plants are only part of the puzzle.

Arizona utilities are also subsidizing the construction of small solar-electric systems on a limited number of residences. APS will pay up to half the cost for the installation of such systems. The state throws in a tax credit of another $1,000, giving the lucky homeowners who qualify a screaming deal.

Robert "Bud" Annan, a former Department of Energy official who cut his teeth helping build the nation's nuclear Navy under Admiral Hyman Rickover, just installed a two-kilowatt system on his house in the upscale Terravita subdivision of north Scottsdale.

After the APS rebate and state tax credit, Annan says he invested about $5,000 for the system. He estimates he's saving $50 a month in power costs, which will give him a 10-year payback on his investment.

Annan says residential solar systems are the best way for utilities to boost electrical production in urban areas because they don't add to regional air pollution, don't require large generating facilities and don't need ugly transmission lines.

"The major contribution solar can make is shaving peak demand so that APS doesn't have to go out and buy power on the spot market and build a bunch of power plants," Annan says.

Demand for the APS residential and small business solar-rebate program is high. But APS is setting aside only $1 million for the program this year from consumer surcharge funds, enough money to build about 100 rooftop systems.

Peter Johnston, APS' manager for technology development, claims the rooftop solar program is inefficient. The power company, he says, wants to focus on large solar arrays, where panels are attached to tracking systems that follow the sun. But even with the solar-array system, APS has a goal of installing a tiny 50 megawatts of solar by 2007 -- and Johnson says the utility won't even reach that!

Meanwhile, Salt River Project, which isn't regulated by the Corporation Commission, is the utility that's most behind the curve.

It has no residential solar program and has only installed a smattering of solar units around the state. In addition, it has purchased a small amount of renewable energy from out of state.

What I'm blathering about here is, all this has got to change if solar power is ever to make a dent in Arizona's electricity production.

In a state that has 300 days of sunshine a year, it's absurd for state government to allow the Big Three to drag their feet on solar-energy production. Put your money where your mouth is for a change, Governor Napolitano, and push for measures that would put the utilities' feet to the fire!

We can't let this golden opportunity to become the world leader in solar energy slip past because our utilities want to line their shareholders' pockets at the expense of Arizona's citizens and the environment.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8445.

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