The news about solar power in Arizona is a mixed bag this week — some good, some not so good. Let’s start with the good news, on the theory that there is precious little of it in this Age of Trump. The Navajo Generating Station — a 2,250 megawatt coal-fired facility in Arizona — has been supplying electricity to parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and California for decades. Much of the coal it consumes is dug locally. Both the plant and the mining operations that support it provide jobs for many Navajo workers who live on the reservation nearby. But the enormous generating plant has outlived its usefulness and will be shut down over the next few years.
Navajo Solar Power Plant Advances
Shutting down the Navajo Generating Station has been coming for a some time as cheaper solar and natural gas have made coal uncompetitive. That’s why the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, an entity of the Navajo nation, started planning to create a solar power plant back in 2014. The 27.3 megawatt Kayenta Solar Project is the first large-scale solar energy facility built on the Navajo reservation. Construction began in 2016 and the project came online for the first time in June.
Glenn Steiger, project manager for the solar farm, tells the Farmington Daily Times, “With the Navajo Generating Station shutting down, that leaves a hole in power generation in this region. And we know that part of that hole ultimately will be filled with renewable energy, whether it’s solar or wind. By us constructing and operating this project, it’s giving us substantial experience in doing this, knowing full well there’s going to be more of this in the near future.”
The 120,000 solar panels that make up the Kaventa facility are mounted on sun tracker equipment that follows the arc of the sun during the day. “Wherever the sun is, that’s what it’s looking at,” Steiger says. The mounting equipment is also capable of lowering the panels to shield them from damage from high winds. The electricity generated is in the form of direct current initially. It is then converted to alternating current before it interconnects to the nearby 230,000-volt transmission line, owned by the Western Area Power Administration.
The completion of the solar facility means that many homes on the Navajo reservation will have electricity for the first time ever. Additional solar power plants are being considered for the rest of the 300 acres under the tribe’s control. “Using revenue generated from the solar project gives us the ability to bring electric service to these communities and help dramatically raise the standard of living for our Navajo families,” says NTUA General Manager Walter Haase.
Arizona Public Service Being Investigated By FBI
While things are rosy in Kayenta, ThinkProgress reports that the FBI is conducting an investigation into whether Arizona Public Service, one of the largest utility companies in the state, sought to influence the composition of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the regulatory body that oversees utility companies in the state. “The FBI is currently conducting a long-term investigation related to the financing of certain statewide races in the 2014 election cycle,” special agent Matthew Reinsmoen told the Arizona Republic in early June.
APS has conducted a bitter campaign to discourage rooftop solar installations by homeowners in the state. Part of that effort may have involved APS funding the campaigns of pro-utility candidates for the ACC using money obtained from its customers. In an election that took place in 2014, APS allegedly funded a political action committee that supported two Republican candidates who had pledged to support the utility in its fight with consumers.
The PAC is not required to disclose its donors, but the FBI suspects some hanky panky took place. One of the members of the ACC is also suing his fellow members to force them to disclose their financial backers. The FBI first got involved after Gary Pierce, who was formerly the chairman of the ACC, was indicted for allegedly raising the rates for a water and sewer company in exchange for payments to his wife. The FBI probe of Pierce led to an inquiry into APS, which had allegedly tried to influence Pierce by contributing to his son’s campaign for Arizona secretary of state.
Distributed Energy Threatens Utility Company Monopolies
Distributed solar is opposed by any number of utility companies. They complain that the transmission lines, transformers, and substations that comprise the utility grid belong to them and only they should be able to have access to the equipment. They bitterly resent having to pay homeowners for any excess electricity generated by their rooftop solar systems.
One can see how such an argument might be popular with industry executives, but the situation is similar to that of electric cars. Most of the world’s automakers have been busy opposing electric cars and treating them as if they were a minor irritant, one that would soon go away. But policy decisions by several nations such as India, France, and Germany to ban the sale of conventional cars in the near future have forced those companies to finally pay attention. There is a good possibility that several legacy automakers will go out of business in coming years because the refused to see the future.
Utility company intransigence and the imposition of special fees on people who dare install rooftop solar systems on their homes will convince many people to install storage batteries in their homes and go off grid entirely. If that happens, the utility companies will be well on their way to becoming irrelevant. Trying to stop the trend toward private solar and wind generation is the modern day equivalent of King Canute The Great sitting by the seashore and commanding the tide not to rise. Maybe one day, Arizona Public Service will go the way of the once mighty Packard Motor Company and slide into the dustbin of history.
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