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Billionaire Trump Foe Behind Solar Energy Measures in Arizona, Other States

Shauna Smith, a nurse practitioner, was among the supporters who talked to reporters on Tuesday about a newly launched clean energy ballot initiative for 2018.EXPAND
Shauna Smith, a nurse practitioner, was among the supporters who talked to reporters on Tuesday about a newly launched clean energy ballot initiative for 2018.
Ray Stern
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Billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer is behind 2018 ballot measures launched in Arizona and two other states this week that would take Arizona's solar power generation to new heights.

Supporters of the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona Committee, backed by the Steyer-funded group NextGen America, officially kicked off their campaign on Tuesday at a Tempe health clinic, focusing on potential health benefits.

The measure would require the state's utilities to use clean energy sources — not including nuclear — to generate 50 percent of Arizona's electricity needs. It would change the Arizona Constitution, meaning backers need to collect 225,963 valid voters signatures by July to make the 2018 ballot.

Two other NextGen-backed initiatives launched in the last few days: Clean Energy, Healthy Michigan; and Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future. The domain names for the similar websites of each of the three initiative campaigns were purchased within a few days of each other last month, online records show. Michigan's initiative seeks a 30 percent renewable mandate by 2030; Nevada's seeks a 50 percent mandate like Arizona's.

Steyer, who owns investment firm Farallon Capital and co-founded OneCalifornia Bank, is one of the country's most well-known critics of President Trump and is pushing for his impeachment.

Advocates of the initiative in Arizona focused primarily on the potential health and economic benefits.

"We believe that every single person has the right to clean air and clean water," said Shauna Smith, a nurse practitioner at Mountain Park Health Center. "This measure holds industrial giants and corporations accountable to reduce the pollution that threatens our air, resulting in cleaner air and better health for our children and families."

The health center's CEO, John Swagert, has pledged to help the initiative but was not at the press conference.

Tracy Perkins, the owner of a local vegan soap manufacturer, said the initiative would spur job growth and reduce some of the negative effects of burning fossil fuels, including local and global air pollution.

"Despite my best efforts as a green business owner, every time I flip the switch in my shop to turn on the lights, computer, or to charge the phone, I'm contributing significantly to the horrible air pollution that plagues our Valley," Perkins said.

Despite the clean-air goal, initial details about the campaign and NextGen's involvement were as hazy as a winter day in smog-plagued Phoenix.

Following the emotional speeches about asthma and better health, organizers ended the press conference without giving any further information about the initiative itself, and offered reporters one-on-one talks with the supporters.

The clean energy group has filed as a political committee with the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, but is still working on the actual text of the initiative. It's supposed to be finished next week, said Bill Scheel of Javelina public relations, which is helping to run the campaign.

For whatever reason, the Clean Energy initiative group doesn't want to divulge too much. The public will have to wait a little longer to find out how the mandate might be achieved, what kind of penalties the utilities may face if they miss the goal, or whether utility customers would be protected from higher power bills.

Some of the same people who worked on Arizona's successful minimum wage ballot initiative of 2016 are involved in the energy plan: Scheel is a spokesman and campaign consultant for the group; Alejandra Gomez, who wasn't at the press conference, is chair of the group's political committee — she's co-executive director for Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA).

One of the most strident critics of the minimum wage law, Glenn Hamer, executive director of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, blasted the energy effort on Twitter after hearing about it Saturday: "California billionaire Tom Steyer looking to RAISE electricity prices — IN ARIZONA! No thank you! Would harm AZ economy and hit those on fixed income hard."

Who is leading the initiative in Arizona wasn't made entirely clear at Tuesday's news conference.

Scheel said he wasn't the one to answer specific questions about it, referring Phoenix New Times to the initiative's spokeswoman, Pita Juarez. She, in turn, said she thought Scheel was the initiative's point person.

At first, Scheel declined to reveal the names of people in the "coalition" drafting the language of the Arizona initiative. Later, he said one of the drafters was local attorney Jim Barton.

Both Scheel and Juarez downplayed NextGen's involvement, saying that the Arizona campaign wasn't being directed by the Steyer-founded group, and that it wasn't necessarily related to any other campaigns.

Yet considering Arizona is one of three states running similar NextGen initiatives, the campaigns appear to be highly coordinated.

Aleigha Cavalier, spokeswoman for NextGen, said Steyer's nonprofit group is "a partner to" the initiatives in Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada. "They are are being managed by an on-the-ground team and coalition of partners," she added.

She denied the group approached the states directly with the idea to raise renewable energy standards, suggesting that the coalitions in each of the three states came up with the idea on their own.

A team of NextGen employees is "guiding" the campaign from the company's San Francisco headquarters, Cavalier said, but she didn't know if they would see the text of the ballot initiative or provide any input on it. She said to ask Jessica Grennan, the campaign manager in Arizona.

Grennan said that she was hired a few weeks ago by NextGen to manage the ballot initiative.

Asked if NextGen would review the initiative when it was done being written, Grennan said, "we're working with a group of partners on the initiative. NextGen and all of our partners will provide input on it."

Most of Arizona's electricity comes from three sources — coal, nuclear, and natural gas. About 12 percent comes from renewable sources, and the state is now on track to meet a mandate established by the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2006 to force utilities to provide 15 percent of the state's electricity from renewables by 2025.

However, about half of the state's renewable energy comes from hydroelectric generation, a source that may dwindle in coming years but isn't likely to increase. The state has relatively low wind resources. If the initiative makes the ballot and voters approve it, utilities will have to meet the 50 percent mandate mainly with solar power.

Arizona and solar power have not come together like some feel they should have, considering the state enjoys more than 300 sunny days a year. Solar has been a relatively expensive power source in the past, and conservative Arizona politicians — some of whom don't believe in human-caused climate change — haven't been as open to subsidizing the industry as those in other states. In 2016, solar companies threatened to launch a ballot initiative that would help their industry, but backed down after intervention by Governor Doug Ducey.

The state ranked third in U.S. rooftop solar installations as of last year.

Arizona Public Service said through a spokesperson on Tuesday that the company had many questions about the plan and looked forward to reviewing the specifics.

"APS customers already get nearly 50 percent of their energy from carbon-free sources — and we aren’t stopping there," the company said in a statement. "We are building more solar, putting advanced environmental controls on our existing power plants, and investing in battery storage, electric vehicles, and other clean technologies."

APS this week announced that it would purchase power from a giant battery being built by Tempe-based First Solar when it's ready in 2021. The 50-megawatt battery would absorb electricity from First Solar photovoltaic panels and discharge it in the peak-power time of late afternoon to help offset dirtier forms of energy generation.

Announcement of the initiative comes a few weeks after Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin proposed a "Energy Modernization Plan" that would set a goal of having 80 percent of Arizona's electricity come from clean energy sources — including nuclear — by 2050. The ACC has not yet voted on the idea.

The goal of renewable energy providing half of the state's electricity is clearly possible. California currently gets 30 percent of its electricity from a variety of renewable sources — though mostly solar energy — and is on track to meet its goal of 50 percent by 2030, a decade earlier than planned.

California has some of the highest electricity rates in the nation — about 50 percent higher than the national average. But it's unclear how much of those high prices are directly attributable to renewable energy.

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