Ariz.’s political views shift with changing power mix

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2020

Arizona’s embrace of renewable energy and Democrat Joe Biden doesn’t surprise Brett Isaac.

The longtime energy worker has seen firsthand the region’s shifting attitudes.

Years ago, family members mocked him when he began installing solar panels on Navajo Nation homes. Isaac is from a Navajo coal mining community near the Arizona-Utah state line, and some of his relatives worked at Peabody Energy Corp.’s nearby Kayenta mine.

Today, Kayenta is no more. The mine shut down after the Navajo Generating Station, a massive coal plant, closed last year. Isaac, meanwhile, is one of the founders of Navajo Power, a Native American-owned solar company that is seeking to develop utility-scale solar projects on the reservation.

His family members no longer laugh at him.

“Coal miners who were all about preserving the job are now realizing the value of diversifying the trade. They realize the implications of having a one-market, one-driver economy,” Isaac said in an interview Tuesday. “What once was environment or economy, it’s now environment and economy. Let’s take [the Navajo Generating Station]. For years, it was an environmental concern. Then it became, in the utilities’ eye, an economic decision because they could no longer justify to their ratepayers the additional cost.”

In the waning weeks of the presidential campaign, Biden looked to Isaac to tell the story of climate change and clean energy in Arizona. The former vice president released a three-minute YouTube ad featuring the Navajo solar developer the week before the election. The bet may have paid off.

This morning, Biden held a small lead of 68,000 votes over President Trump in Arizona with 86% of ballots counted. The Associated Press and Fox News both have called the state for Biden.

Nevertheless, deciphering the role of climate and clean energy in the Arizona outcome is difficult.

Two exit polls of Arizona voters either did not ask about climate or voters did not list it is a top priority. A New York Times/Siena College poll on the eve of the election found 58% of respondents were worried about a warming planet, compared with 41% who were not. But poll results should be taken with an extra grain of salt this year, given their mixed track record in forecasting the results.

What is clear, though, is that Arizona has undergone a rapid transformation in its power industry.

Coal is on the road to being phased out of the state. Of the 13 coal units in operation in 2018, only three are scheduled to run past 2032.

State regulators last week passed an amendment to require 50% renewable generation by 2035 and 100% clean energy by 2050.

The fate of the overall energy package could depend on the outcome of Tuesday’s races for the Arizona Corporation Commission, where four candidates are duking it out for three seats on the board that oversees the state’s utilities.

And where Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, vehemently opposed a clean energy standard at the ballot box in 2018, the power company is now targeting net-zero emissions by 2050.

“It’s a combination of things — consumer preference, renewable energy economics and regulatory oversight — that really led to a shift in their strategy,” Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at the clean energy group Energy Innovation, said of APS.

A similar thing could be said about Arizona.