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Arizona Corporation Commission candidates take sides on renewable energy standards

Two of the five seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission are up for grabs in the current election. The commission is best known for regulating utilities. A big issue distinguishing this year’s candidates is renewable energy.

All states have what is most often called a public utility commission but Arizona’s Corporation Commission is one of only seven in the country that is constitutionally mandated. And Arizona is one of only 13 states that elects its commissioner instead of being governor-appointed.

Two Republicans — Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson — and two Democrats — Sandra Kennedy and Lauren Kuby — are running for the two open positions.

While each of the candidates are running individually, they have chosen to pair off — identifying as two partisan packages.

Both sides agree the main job of the commission is to be an advocate for ratepayers. But they disagree about the best way to do it. The Democrats believe the commission should take a more active role in setting standards for the utilities, with a goal of getting to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible.

Kuby, who is a former vice mayor of Tempe and a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, says solar power is by far the best solution, especially in the sunniest state in the country.

“It’s the cheapest form of energy,” Kuby said. “The best way to get to a hundred percent goal is to really first make sure that you’re energy-efficient as possible.”

And she says these decisions do not happen in a vacuum. Climate change and severe drought in Arizona means all decisions need to take environmental impact into account.

“With energy efficiency comes water conservation. Saving energy, you’re saving water. They’re indelibly connected. There’s a water-energy nexus that we need to really focus on with every decision we make on the commission,” she said.

Republican Nick Myers, a corporate engineer and small businessman, disputes that renewable power is inexpensive.

“Generating power is different than storing power and being able to use it when you need it,” Myers said. “And if you look at the energy information government website, it actually shows that when you add storage, the cost is about 5 times what it was.”

Kuby believes those figures are out of date and that the current pace of growth in batteries and storage technology is catching up quickly.

“Working at the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation we see how many strides we’re making with battery storage and solar collection, non-photovoltaic solar collection,” Kuby said.

She says it will take years for the utilities to reach 100% renewable energy, and storage capabilities will have caught up well before then.

The two sides are also at odds over how much the commission should mandate the pace of change for the utilities. The Democrats say setting hard, but achievable goals toward renewable energy sources, especially solar are needed to make sure utilities get there as quickly as possible.

The Republicans say utilities should not be dictated to.

Kevin Thompson — a Mesa City Council member and an Air Force veteran — says locking utilities into mandatory standards is fraught with risk. He believes it’s better to take a more flexible approach.

“Where we’re allowing all types of generation, whether its hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, natural gas, coal-fired, all of the above approach, and allow technology to dictate when it’s time to shift to renewables,” Thompson said. 

But Sandra Kennedy, a former state legislator and current commissioner who is seeking re-election, says the commission needs to set a standard that the utilities can follow.

“We need to increase the standard,” Kennedy said. “Even though the utilities have said ‘We’re going to do everything possible, because we see it’s in our best interests also.’ But you know, maybe just a little nudge from the commissioner, those who regulate those entities should actually sit down and tell them, ‘You know, we’d like to have your ideas, but here are ours, too, and let’s work together to create the standard that should represent Arizona and the utilities, too.’”

Those elected this year will serve four-year terms. Commissioners can serve two consecutive terms. Three of the five positions come up for elections during presidential elections years, the other two during midterm elections, like this year.

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