Inside Clean Energy: Arizona’s Net-Zero Plan Unites Democrats and Republicans

Source: BY DAN GEARINO, Inside Climate News • Posted: Sunday, November 22, 2020

‘In a sane and normal world, this is what our energy politics could be like,’ one expert said, noting jobs and fighting climate change could be bipartisan goals.

A saguaro cactus is seen against the blue sky in Saguaro National Park, Arizona. Despite rich solar resources, Arizona's policies have often been unfriendly to solar power. But that's changing with the adoption of a statewide plan to get to 100 percent ca

A saguaro cactus is seen against the blue sky in Saguaro National Park, Arizona. Despite rich solar resources, Arizona’s policies have often been unfriendly to solar power. But that’s changing with the adoption of a statewide plan to get to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050. Credit: Epics/Getty Images

Arizona is showing the rest of the country how to set the terms for a transition to clean energy that is substantial and nonpartisan.

Considering that the state is controlled by Republicans and was known until recently for the way its largest utility, Arizona Public Service, was willing to go to great lengths to oppose progress, that fact in itself is incredible.

With a 4 to 1 vote last week, the Arizona Corporation Commission approved a plan requiring regulated utilities in the state to move to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. The plan includes interim targets of 50 percent carbon-free energy by 2032, and 75 percent by 2040.

The vote was a capstone of sorts for Bob Burns, a Republican, the commission chairman, who, because of term limits, will leave office at the end of this year.

“I’m about done. I’m a short-timer. I’m a lame duck,” Burns told me.

In many if not most states, a utility commission could not make a big change without  direction from the legislature or the governor. Arizona is different in that this elected commission has broad powers over utility rates, acting as its own branch of government.

The plan is not a done deal, but it’s pretty close. It now will go through a public comment period in January, followed by a final vote sometime next year by the newly elected commission.

Commissioners made a last-minute change to the plan to virtually guarantee that it will have enough votes to pass next year. They got rid of a provision that said Arizona needed to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035, while retaining steps toward getting to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. Carbon-free electricity can include nuclear and other technologies that have no emissions but are not renewable.

By making this change, the plan won the support of Commissioner Lea Márquez Peterson, a Republican, who supported the 2050 target but was against the 2035 renewable energy requirement, because she wanted to give utilities more leeway to decide the best mix of technologies.

I wrote two weeks ago that the results of the Arizona Corporation Commission election might have turned the tide against the clean energy plan. Two of the three seats were won by people who opposed the plan’s previous version. (As a result of the election, the partisan split on the commission is going from a 4-1 Republican edge to a 3-2 Republican edge.)

But now that equation has changed, with Márquez Peterson part of the 4-1 majority in favor of the plan, and also part of the expected 3-2 majority for the final vote next year.

It was a feat of compromise that was one of Burns’ final acts as a commissioner. He has been on the panel since 2013 and, before that, spent 20 years as a member of the Arizona State Legislature.

The plan is much more than the 2050 target. Among the other provisions, it includes a change in policy for energy storage that opens the door to groups of customers with energy storage to band together and sell electricity to the grid. It also increases the state’s requirements for energy efficiency, which means utilities need to expand programs that help customers reduce their electricity use.

Finally, the plan changes the process that utilities must use to develop new power plants, requiring utilities to solicit proposals that can include any technology. When used in other states, this approach has usually led to utilities realizing that renewable sources are the least expensive options, which is what Burns expects to happen in Arizona.

As evidence of how far Arizona has come, Burns has spent nearly all of his time on the commission fighting with Arizona Public Service over a series of legal and regulatory issues.

In 2016, he issued a subpoena asking the utility to disclose any secret campaign donations it used to help elect friendlier commissioners. Arizona Public Service responded by suing him to stop the disclosure, a case that remains active and is likely to outlast his tenure on the commission.

“APS went out and turned it into a street fight,” Burns said.

The legal wrangling was in addition to the utility’s long-term push to preserve its fossil fuel power plants and hinder the development of solar. A low point came in 2018, when the company spent heavily to help persuade voters to defeat a ballot measure that would have required the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

But the company’s position has changed in a big way. In January, Arizona Public Service said it was committing to getting all its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050, and the company has softened its stance on issues that have made it difficult to develop solar. There are many reasons for the changes, including the continuing decrease in the costs of developing solar and energy storage projects.

An Arizona Public Service spokeswoman told me that her company supports the commission’s plan and looks forward to working to implement it.

The likely passage of the state carbon-free electricity requirement will mean that the state and its largest utility are sending clear messages that the path forward does not include fossil fuels.

Arizona is now a model for how to embrace the transition to clean energy, said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, an environmental watchdog group.

“In a sane and normal world, this is what our energy politics could be like: Republicans and Democrats coming together to pass a decarbonization policy that’s going to create a lot of economic opportunity and address climate change,” he said.

Arizona Poised to Join '100 Percent' Club

State and regional environmental groups also are praising the outcome. For example, Ellen Zuckerman, utility program director for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said she is “really excited and thrilled” with the new plan, and the direction of the state’s energy policy.

One of the most interesting parts of the Arizona plan is that it is the product of a Republican-majority board in a state where Republicans hold the governor’s office and control both houses of the Legislature.

Burns told me he realizes that outside observers might think it unusual that Republicans support clean energy, but he said he thinks it makes perfect sense. He wants consumers to benefit from using the cleanest and least expensive energy sources, and right now that’s solar power.

“I think we’re out in front with what we’ve done here,” he said.

Vineyard Wind 1 Gets Hit with (Another) Delay. Here’s What’s Next.

We were supposed to get an update last Friday on the federal permit process for Vineyard Wind 1, the groundbreaking offshore wind project off of Massachusetts.

Instead, we got another delay. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said that it was unable to meet the deadline to publish the final environmental impact statement for the project, because the office is still processing public comments in the case.

“BOEM received more than 13,000 comments on the supplemental environmental impact statement for Vineyard Wind,” said Stephen Boutwell, a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokesman. “BOEM continues to work with cooperating agencies in the review of these comments.”

Wind turbines rotate in the Baltic Sea between the islands of Rügen and Bornholm in Denmark. Credit: Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Wind turbines rotate in the Baltic Sea between the islands of Rügen and Bornholm in Denmark. Credit: Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

As a result, the office now says it will publish the environmental impact statement on Dec. 11, a delay of about a month. After that, the next step would be for the office to decide whether to issue a permit for the project, which now would happen by Jan. 15, barring additional delays.

A Vineyard Wind spokesman downplayed the significance of this latest delay, saying, “Minor delays like this are not uncommon.”

The problem is that this minor delay follows a major delay in the summer of 2019, when the office said it needed to do additional study of the environmental ramifications of the project.

Vineyard Wind 1, with 800 megawatts, is the first of a new generation of large offshore wind projects in the United States. The delays have served to slow down one of the most promising new sources of renewable energy, with several dozen other projects in various stages of development.

Hopefully, they will be over in time for the arrival of the Biden administration on Jan. 20, which the offshore wind industry is hoping will mark a new era of rapid progress in reviewing and approving clean energy projects.

Big Business Group Forms to Urge Switch to Electric Vehicles

A newly-established coalition of businesses is calling for a transition to 100 percent electric vehicle sales in the United States by 2030.

The Zero Emission Transport Association, or ZETA, announced its formation this week.

It remains to be seen how active the group will be, but at first glance these are some heavy hitters in the coalition that could help to change the conversation about what is possible in the transition to EVs. The 28 members include EV makers like Tesla and utilities like Duke Energy, plus companies that make batteries, charging stations and other components.

“For the first time in a generation, transportation is the leading emitter of U.S. carbon emissions,” said Joe Britton, executive director of ZETA, in a statement. “By embracing EVs, federal policymakers can help drive innovation, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and improve air quality and public health.”

Britton has worked on the staffs of several U.S. senators, and served as chief of staff for Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

I’ll be watching to see whether this group will put in the work needed to make its voice heard in federal and state debates, and to counter the much more established voices of companies that make and sell gasoline vehicles.