Can ALEC Dim Arizona Solar on Tuesday?

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Tuesday morning could be key in deciding Arizona solar policy for years to come.  Because of the way public utilities oversight was set up in the 19th century, the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) has wound up with almost unfettered control of energy policy in the state.

On the agenda: rolling back renewable energy standards, gutting solar rebates, and even forbidding ACC from discussing declining rebates, thanks to infiltration by ALEC, the sinister nationwide shadow group which has just gained effective control over the ACC, via new member Brenda Burns, a former National Chairman of ALEC.

ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is the infamous front group mass-producing “model bills” for states to shake’n’bake into conservative legislation that benefits only corporate interests of its biggest funders, among them the Koch brothers. The fossil fuel industry famously wrote its own widely duplicated ruling, that global warming is a hoax, in order to avoid controls on polluting industries, for example.

The utility that owns of one of the oldest coal plants in America, the Arizona Public Service Company (APSC), is subject to an already ridiculously low Renewable Energy Standard; requiring less than 1% of solar to be added annually since 2006 or 15% by 2025. But APSC is petitioning at the open meeting to reduce the solar requirement even further.

“And that’s not because solar is more expensive than coal – when you count value from solar feeding into the grid at peak times, the zero environmental footprint, and the huge pollution costs from coal,” Nancy LaPlaca, Policy Advisor to Commissioner Paul Newman, one of two Democrats on the five member ACC said this week.

LaPlaca told me that Arizona spends between 15 and 20 times more buying fossil fuels from out of state than it does on solar, adding: “You just wouldn’t believe how hard you have to fight for solar – in Arizona!”

Just last year alone, she said Arizona spent $3 billion on coal, uranium and natural gas fuel, while its solar rebate program paid out only between $150 and $200 million for solar during the same time, mostly in rebates for rooftop solar.

“We get a third of electricity from natural gas. We spent a billion and a half last year for it, and another $800 million on natural gas for heating,” she added. “And $500 million a year importing coal, plus $280 million on in-state coal.”

The $3 billion for coal, uranium and natural gas will come out of ratepayer pockets again next year, and keep rising each year until those resources are gone. Indeed, on the agenda are several rate rise requests for natural gas contracts.

By contrast, homes with solar electricity are freed from the need to be supplied by coal, uranium and natural gas electricity for decades. Solar rebates create a long-term benefit for all ratepayers because once installed, these roofs will ship out a supply of clean power to the Arizona grid at no further cost to other ratepayers, reducing the demand for coal, gas and uranium and thus lowering the cost of electricity for everyone.

Yet on Tuesday, the question to be decided (thanks to ALEC) is should the small solar rebates be cut even more, and should utilities be able to reduce yet further their already undemanding renewable energy standards.

A fair number of concerned citizens are expected at the two day hearings and a couple of groups plan to drive up from Tucson for the Tuesday and Wednesday “Open Meeting” that any interested citizen can attend.

“The reason that APS wants to reduce the amount of money it’s spending on the REST is because they are going to hit the 15% by 2025 target 7 years early!  There are a couple reasons they are going to hit the target early”, said LaPlaca.

“Former Chair Kris Mayes added 100 MW of solar to an APS rate case; and the response has been enormous – people LOVE solar.”  But local solar developers are worried that if rebates are cut out of utility budgets for the next few years, this will create a boom and bust cycle that hurts the ability of solar businesses to hold on to the needed skills in the state.

The widely ridiculed ACC “staff” amendment forbidding the ACC from even discussing solar rebates during 2012 especially bothers renewable energy proponents, including LaPlaca.  “As the sunniest state in the US, and with renewable energy policy evolving at a rapid rate, to refuse to discuss issues like declining rebates is sticking your head in the sand.”

Ironically, the state’s constitution was written where there was a backlash against corporate power, and requiring that the ACC to be independent as well as elected was seen as a way to curb corporate power.

(Previous story: Arizona to Cut Solar Rebates)

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