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Corporation Commission candidates debate Renewable Energy Standard

Three seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission are up for election this fall. The panel has been called the most important government body you’ve never heard of. And, one issue has emerged as the most critical for the six major party candidates running for those positions. From Phoenix, KJZZ’s Mark Brodie reports.

MARK BRODIE: That issue is renewable energy - or more specifically, Arizona’s Renewable Energy Standard, or RES. The Corporation Commission approved it in 2006. It requires regulated utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, like solar and wind, by 2025. The three Republicans running for the Corporation Commission want to keep the RES where it is, while the three Democrats want to increase it.

KRIS MAYES: Yeah, I think that’s really the crux of this election, as it has been, frankly, for the last couple of elections for the Arizona Corporation Commission.

BRODIE: Kris Mayes helped approve the renewable standard, while she served on the commission. She says renewable energy has emerged as a major issue before the panel, which helps explain why it’s become so important in its campaigns. And, one of the major factors in the arguments pro and con? Cost.

JOSEPH BARRIOS: A coal resource would still cost less than a solar resource.

BRODIE: Joseph Barrios is with Tucson Electric Power.

BARRIOS: But certainly, the cost of investing in solar has come down in the last few years, and will continue to do so.

BRODIE: Barrios says TEP will soon be ahead of the game in terms of meeting the renewable energy standard. But, that’s come at a bit of a price. Ratepayers have had a surcharge added to their energy bills, to pay for renewable programs. Residential customers currently pay an extra $3.15 a month, although the utility is asking the Corporation Commission to increase that to $4.75 a month next year. And, that’s one of the main arguments made by opponents of increasing the renewable energy standard - they say if it goes up, so too will energy costs. Tim James is a Professor at the WP Carey School of Business at ASU.

TIM JAMES: In comparative terms, if our power costs are higher, for instance, than New Mexico would be, or Utah or Nevada or something or other, they might become more attractive for people who use a lot of power to locate there, rather than coming to locate here. It would cause costs for businesses to actually rise a bit.

BRODIE: James has spent years studying the costs and benefits of changing Arizona’s energy mix. He says the renewable energy standard has led to increased use of solar energy in Arizona. And, he says, even though energy costs could go up by requiring more solar, it could also help the state’s economy.  Kris Mayes agrees, and says Arizona risks being left behind its neighbors if it doesn’t do more with solar energy.

MAYES: We lose manufacturers, we lose installers of renewable energy equipment, we lose opportunities when we’re not keeping up with our neighbors. And, so I think there are strong reasons to believe Arizona needs to do more.

BRODIE: Mayes says Arizona should ultimately aim to require regulated utilities to generate more than half of their energy using renewables. But, as for the existing standard, Joseph Barrios says Tucson Electric Power has five projects that are scheduled to come online by the end of the year. And, he says the utility is trying to keep its projects local.

BARRIOS: So, if we’re going to make an investment, why not make it here in the same community that we serve?

BRODIE: But not everyone is sold on the ‘solar as job creator’ argument. Tom Jenney, Arizona Director of Americans for Prosperity, agrees that if the renewable standard goes up, and utilities are mandated to use more renewables, energy costs will also go up. And, he says, if that happens, people will have less money to spend and invest elsewhere. Jenney is in favor of repealing the standard, even though none of the candidates is advocating that. He also says the corp com shouldn’t try to predict what the right energy mix will be down the road.

TOM JENNEY: If you sat there in 1985 and tried to guess what the right mix of telecom technologies was in the year 2005, you probably would have gotten it wrong. You would think that the fax machine would be on top of the world. And, you would have missed the internet completely. It’s the same thing with any of these areas.

BRODIE: Two of the seats up for election on the Corporation Commission are currently held by Democrats, the other by a Republican. All three incumbents are running to keep their seats.