In Sunny Arizona, Fight Heats Up Over Solar Power

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – You might think there’s nothing to argue about in sunny Arizona when it comes to solar power. You’d be wrong.

A renewable energy voter initiative on Tuesday’s ballot has sparked a bitter, $60 million battle drawing the attention of a California billionaire and spurring state Attorney General Mark Brnovich to sue for defamation over TV ads.

Proposition 127 would change the state constitution to require electric utilities to get half their power from renewable sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, water and biomass or organic matter, by 2030. Utility companies and several state business organizations oppose the plan, while, not surprisingly, environmental groups back it.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, a political action committee funded largely by San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, is the largest group behind the measure. The opposition, led mostly by the PAC Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, receives the majority of its funding from Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of the state’s largest power company, Arizona Public Service Co.

State law currently requires Arizona utilities to get 8 percent of the energy they sell from renewables. That percentage rises to 15 percent in 2025. The new law would require 12 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030. It would also require utilities to get 3 percent of their retail energy from sources on customers’ properties – such as school, commercial or home rooftop solar – by 2020 and at least 10 percent by 2030.

Matthew Benson, spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, said the measure will cost customers an average of $1,000 more per year, because every power company would have to switch quickly to renewable energy.

Small town residents would be hit hardest, he said.

“Many of them are covered by small, nonprofit cooperatives” that would be forced to raise rates 40 percent to cover the cost of switching to renewables, Benson said.

The state Joint Legislative Budget Committee did not estimate the fiscal impact. The Secretary of State’s Office election guide calls the impact “difficult to quantify in advance,” because full implementation wouldn’t come until 2030 and technology and other factors could change.

Changing technology is one reason Arizona needs this new standard, DJ Quinlan, communications director for Clean Energy said, noting that the current standard was written 12 years ago.

“The cost of solar power has dropped. Literally it is four times less expensive than it was in 2006, and we haven’t updated it,” Quinlan said, adding that their research shows customers would pay $3 less per month under the new standards.

Quinlan said Arizona is a national leader in renewable energy use, but that it could lose that standing as more states move toward a 50 percent renewable standard. A legislative effort is on the table in New Mexico, a voter initiative is under consideration in Nevada, and a major power company in Colorado is voluntarily moving to 55 percent renewables.

The campaign might be the most expensive in Arizona history. Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has spent $29 million trying to pass the measure, according to state financial filings. Arizonans for Affordable Electricity has spent $30 million opposing it, the records show.

“We know we’re up against a billionaire,” Benson said of the cash Pinnacle West has invested.

State Attorney General Mark Brnovich leaped into the fray when he sued Clean Energy last week after an ad claimed he changed the language of the initiative to favor utility companies in response to $400,000 in campaign donations from Pinnacle West to the Republican Attorneys General Association. The association has spent more than $1.2 million on Brnovich’s re-election campaign.

Proposition 127 appears headed for defeat. In a poll of 400 likely voters released Wednesday by Highground Public Affairs Consulting in Phoenix, 32 percent backed the measure and 63 percent opposed it.

But the people involved in Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona aren’t going anywhere, Quinlan said.

“Yes or no, I think this is just the beginning of the fight,” he said.

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