Clean energy tops list for state utility board in 2019

Three Arizona veteran policy makers now sit at the helm of the Arizona Corporation Commission that carries immense responsibility and weight: setting rules for and monitoring utilities, incorporating new businesses, regulating securities, and more.

With a new makeup of the commission, it’s unknown if they will overcome the political fist fights of the last year and move forward.

What is clear is that the three – new Chairman Bob Burns, newly re-elected Commissioner Sandra Kennedy and sitting Commissioner Andy Tobin – have put clean energy as their top priority in 2019.

If they can work together, consumers and businesses could see a major ramp up of choices for renewable energy. The three have the most experience on the commission, and have served long stints as state legislators, with Burns and Tobin in leadership positions. Already, they are producing results.

Renewable energy is a heated topic across the nation as states debate and adopt new energy requirements. In Arizona, an intense battle over a renewable energy initiative last year ended in it being widely defeated in November. Accusations also tainted the board as candidates campaigned for seats on the five-member commission.   

But it’s a new day. At its first public meeting this month, there were no fireworks.

The commission approved a number of measures including a milestone for renewable energy advocates.  

After more than ten years of discussion and workshops, the commission approved statewide rules for connecting renewable energy sources to the grid. The rules are intended to make it safer, easier and more cost effective to interconnect “distributed generation facilities” like rooftop solar.  ]

The commission as a whole including fellow commissioners Boyd Dunn and Justin Olson, have promised to put Arizona at the forefront of innovative measures to protect the state’s air, water and forests.  

That’s no small task, said new Chairman Burns. Consumers, businesses and stakeholders often have competing wants: low monthly rates, more choices, reliable service, fair profits, more regulation, less regulation.

Burns said his goal as chairman is to be a consensus-builder and to move more quickly on urgent energy issues facing the state. 

“I want to have staff meetings with the commissioners where we can have a discussion around the table where all five can participate, provide and kick ideas around, and come up with solutions,” Burns said. “We didn’t have enough of those discussions in my opinion.”

Here’s what the three veteran decision makers say are top priorities for 2019:

Chairman Burns:

Solve the “peak” problem Burns said his top goal will be to find new ways to ensure enough generation of power to meet demand during high usage times to avoid blackouts. Battery storage of renewable energy will be a key tool.

“We need to keep ahead of the curve,” he said. “How do we take advantage of the renewable energy that is coming down in price and how do we pair that with storage to solve the peak?”

More rate options for customers Burns would like to see utilities offer homes and businesses more pricing plans and options to encourage power usage at off-peak times to conserve energy.

Consolidation of water utilities Arizona has more than 300 small water companies. Some struggle to keep up with regulations and the cost of new technology and infrastructure. The commission will continue to deal with problematic utilities and enforce consolidation with larger more stable water companies

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy  

Increase renewable energy requirements Kennedy said she wants to propose an increase in the state renewable energy requirements to require utilities to get half their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2028. Kennedy has long been a proponent of increasing solar resources.

Water conservation With Arizona facing water shortages in the near future, Kennedy stated she wants to work with small water companies to implement conservation practices.

Commissioner Andy Tobin

Long term energy plan Tobin was instrumental in pushing for the Arizona Energy Modernization Plan to increase clean energy requirements. The commission started adding items to the plan last year including biomass energy standards for regulated utilities in the state. Biomass is the burning of forest debris. In Arizona, there are about one million acres that need to be thinned to prevent forest fires and protect watershed.

The proposed plan calls for: 80 percent of the state’s energy from renewable and clean energy sources including nuclear energy by 2050; 3 gigawatts of energy storage capacity by 2030; and increasing electric vehicle infrastructure for charging stations in new construction, existing homes, large fleet operations, and on highways.

Promoting new technology and industry Tobin said the new policies like the biomass measure have a dual role, to help the environment and lure industry to Arizona.

Tobin wants to see the energy plan in place by Feb. 14 before the started of fire season.  

“I think it’s a good signal that this commission is already accomplishing things in the first week,” Tobin said. “This is probably the most exciting time to be in the energy sector in  a hundred years.”

Victoria Harker

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