The Great Solar Scam Of '99
By Dan Huff
TODAY AND tomorrow top federal energy officials will be in town for the grand opening of Civano, the erstwhile "solar village" under construction southeast of Tucson. The visit by Peter Dreyfuss and Dan W. Reicher is also tied to President Bill Clinton's two-year-old Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which Dreyfuss heads. Reicher is a U.S. assistant secretary of energy.
Supported by public money, Solar Roofs is supposed to involve community partnerships that put solar energy into widespread use and benefit as many people as possible. Sounds good, except that here in Tucson some opportunists are trying to hijack the program for their own benefit, not the community's.
DOES ANYBODY remember the solar water heating fiasco of the 1980s? In a nutshell, the good guys lost their fight to promote solar energy in a sane and sensible manner when the feds got behind the idea with tax credits.
Up to that point in Arizona, a state blessed (or cursed) with abundant sunshine, a solid industry had grown with quality suppliers deeply committed to good use of the technology. These guys knew what worked and what didn't from long personal experience. But after the feds jumped in, suddenly a bunch of fly-by-night solar scammers appeared from out of nowhere, the competition grew cutthroat, well-meaning but woefully uninformed consumers bought shoddy systems that crapped out on them, and the whole industry just sort of dried up and blew away.
The opportunists had a feeding frenzy at the public trough and you-know-who was left holding the bag. Even though the technology is much better today, when was the last time you heard a homeowner talking about installing a passive solar water heater?
AND NOW THE same sorry scenario is poised to repeat itself with an even more promising, much more advanced solar technology, photovoltaics. That's right: It's now economically feasible, though certainly not necessarily cheaper at present, for some homeowners to generate much of their electricity directly from sunlight.
Think about the immense potential impact of that simple fact: clean, abundant energy available for the taking, and to hell with the power company. To hell with their coal-fired generators, to hell with the nuclear power industry, to hell with the economic and environmental havoc they cause. Obviously, the federal government, addicted as it is to the blandishments of big business, isn't about to stand idly by and let that happen, is it?
What's that? You're damn right we're cynical and mistrusting of government in these matters, and for good reason. It has let special interests block solar energy time after time. Just look at what's going on right here, on a small scale, in our own backyard:
GIVEN A CHOICE between a broadly based, technologically sophisticated, community group of solar leaders and community activists, or a small cabal of profiteers sucking up to Tucson Electric Power, who would you trust to pursue and protect the public's interests in solar energy?
Yes, it's a loaded question, and the facts are explosive:
On the one hand we have the Tucson Solar Alliance, the aforementioned good guys, who formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit community partnership in support of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative two years ago. On the other hand we have the deceptively copycat Tucson Coalition for Solar Energy, aka Tucson Solar Coalition, which hastily surfaced later, apparently founded by the owner of a new solar company and a local developer and former president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, John Wesley Miller.
At some point, pro-business City Councilwoman Shirley Scott reportedly introduced the Coalition cabal to the developers of Civano, another interesting story in itself, but one which must wait until another day.
Suffice it to say the Solar Alliance wants the possibilities of solar energy to be available to everyone in the community, while those behind the Coalition want to corner the solar market.
John Miller made a big splash recently as the would-be savior of Tucson's historic Armory Park neighborhood, whose residents felt menaced by a proposal for an ugly, high-density apartment project nearby. Miller instead proposed building "affordable" solar housing complete with photovoltaics.
In the first place, "affordable" housing doesn't start at $100,000 or $100 per square foot, as Miller is proposing; and in the second place, solar experts note that Miller's plans have most of his houses facing the wrong direction to make good use of solar energy.
So what's really going on there?
Miller's project is billed as a "partnership" with--guess who--TEP, the same company that has been dragging its feet and everyone else's on solar energy for years.
It seems the local electric company recently bought a 50 percent stake in a company called Global Solar. Our sources tell us Miller approached TEP asking to become an exclusive distributor for Global Solar's photovoltaic systems, which are based on an exotic new thin-film technology never tried before.
Sounds impressive, and it very well may be. But everybody seems to have the impression Global Solar is about to make these fantastic new solar panels available tomorrow for home use. Yet Global Solar says its primary market is in military and aerospace applications, where big bucks and cost overruns don't seem to matter.
Furthermore, nobody seems to be mentioning basics like cost, warranties, and how long these will last in the powerful Arizona sun.
Meanwhile, someone is pushing yet another thin-film photovoltaic system that's so new that no one knows how long it will last either. These have a 10-year warranty, compared with 20- to 25-year warranties for other, older pv systems based on less advanced technology. When a homeowner is paying $12,000 for something, that might make a difference to him.
But how many people know these things? And what happens when a builder makes the choice instead of the homeowner? This is beginning to sound like the flimflam that killed the bright promise of solar water heating in our community. Watch your behinds on this one, hapless homeowners.
And we should watch Miller closely, too. The onetime head of Arizona's Solar Energy Commission presided over the squandering of millions of dollars that were supposed to promote sensible solar projects in Arizona. Instead, Miller and UA environmental guru Carl Hodges and their friends divided up three-quarters of the available cash among themselves for schemes that, in our opinion, had little to do with solar energy. Hodges milked one project for $18 million, while building nothing.
At the very least, we believe these people should have been tried on conflict-of-interest charges. They weren't. But then, like the federal pols, Arizona's lawmakers also know how to kiss industry's ass: Besides Miller and Hodges, political powerbroker and nuclear power heavyweight Keith Turley, former head of the Phoenix-based utility, APS, was also head of the state solar commission at one point. Yeah, that makes sense--the utilities wouldn't want solar energy out of control, would they?
AND IT DOESN'T get much better as it gets closer to home and tomorrow's sunrise. Out at Civano, the one-time model solar development has become a good example of how not to do solar energy.
The two federal energy officials now visiting Civano should pause for a few moments to check the project's homesite layouts. They'll discover that very few of these houses are oriented properly for solar energy: just about every which way but south. They can also find, incredibly, photovoltaic power systems being used there in conjunction with electric water heaters and other big energy-wasting appliances. Whatever happened to passive solar water heating, indeed.
One Civano-affiliated company is offering token 200-watt photovoltaic systems. Whee! How many light bulbs will those power? Could it be that TEP has something to do with this? You bet it does. It's promoting all-electric houses, of course.
In another absurdity, the Arizona Energy Office asked some architects and engineers to examine Civano's request for roughly $300,000 for a community center. The experts reported back to the state, saying, in effect, the project had little to do with solar energy. But the Energy Office subsequently forked over the money anyway, as an "education" grant.
And just what is Civano's No. 1 strategy to lower energy costs? Reducing window area. Hey, kids! Be the first in town to live in one of those new-fangled "solar caves!"
The situation has degenerated so badly, we're told even many in the local development community, not generally considered a very forward-thinking bunch, are disgusted with what's gone on at Civano.
And this hopelessly muddled bullshit is occurring in a region where experts agree that the owner of a properly situated, properly designed solar home can expect a savings of 75 percent on summer cooling bills, while incurring virtually no expense at all for winter heating. Ever.
HOW DID SUCH absurdities come to pass in a taxpayer-supported project originally billed as a shining, world-class, model demonstration of solar energy at its best?
We blame the City of Tucson. About five years ago, much to our bafflement and city taxpayers' chagrin, then-City Manager Michael Brown pushed the city to assume responsibility for Civano.
Why? Perhaps it had something to do with that well-reported ride Brown took with legendary land speculator Donald R. Diamond in the Tucson Police Department helicopter. Then again, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, perhaps Brown was merely a fool.
At any rate, Diamond's massive, billion-dollar-plus proposed development, the Rocking K Ranch, lies just east of Civano, and Diamond has been very clever about getting local government to pick up the bill for sewer, water and other infrastructure costs for his projects. Despite widespread complaints that they were fostering urban sprawl, it was relatively easy for the Tucson City Council to extend--at a cost of over $3 million--infrastructure to Civano, that noble experiment in the desert. How fortunate for Diamond then, when that move put sewer and other services so much closer to his own grandiose sprawlopolis in the sticks at no cost to him.
But we digress.
For whatever reason, city government became deeply enmeshed, and whenever that happens you can bet the special interests will party like maggots in putrefying pork.
In the meantime, Miller and friends hooked up with Valerie Rauluk, a former Wall Street whiz. They cleverly tried to make their Solar Coalition look exactly like the good guys at the much more broadly based Tucson Solar Alliance. We'll spare you the sordid details, but suffice it to say the Coalition, which quickly became a subsidiary of TEP, began competing with the community-based Alliance for the federal dollars and other resources becoming available for community solar programs.
So while the Tucson Solar Alliance is promoting community cooperation and a level playing field for everyone, including Coalition partners, the Coalition has been working to undermine them and divert scarce resources to their own projects and their own benefit. They may call themselves a coalition, but they're not incorporated and they exist only on paper. Whenever they submit a proposal or sign a contract, it's Tucson Electric Power that does the signing.
TEP has given the public very little reason for trust. The company is still trying to recover from the coal plant fiasco that resulted when its former leaders engineered a mega-million-dollar stock scam, sold their shares and fled to the Caribbean to enjoy their retirement. Guess who's paying for that one.
Then, of course, there's the latest scam, restructuring the electric industry, which may prove to be an even greater financial disaster than the savings and loan industry meltdown. If the purpose is to let big electricity consumers, like the mines and big industry, pay less for their power, who do you suppose is going to end up making up for it?
IN JANUARY 1998, the City Council and Board of Supervisors both voted unanimously to join in the formation of the Tucson Solar Alliance. Mayor George Miller wrote a letter to President Clinton announcing that Tucson had formed this community partnership in support of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative.
So how is it that the Mayor's signature appears on a letter dated in October to Peter Dreyfuss, head of the Million Solar Roofs project, endorsing TEP's Coalition?
Yikes! Not hearing about this until much later, the good guys at the Alliance went back to the City Council, whose members said they had never agreed to such an arrangement. To this day, Miller has not uttered one word of explanation. Amazingly, at the same time, the Mayor's office was sending another letter to U.S. Department of Energy on behalf of the Solar Alliance.
Perhaps the Mayor was merely confused by the similar-sounding names--he'd been recently released from the hospital about the time of the letter. Of course, we here at the Tucson Weekly prefer to believe he's hopelessly senile.
The alternative explanation is far more sinister. George Miller is an old-fashioned pro-growth, annex-to-the-horizon, let-them-drink-CAP-water cementhead. In his moth-eaten book, sprawl is good. TEP couldn't agree more. And since TEP officials have never seen fit to hire anyone who knows much of anything about solar power, they have one big, fat, greasy reason to try like hell to control it: fear.
TEP is a putz when it comes to solar energy, and has been determinedly opposing it for decades.
Through some fluke or public relations department mistake, TEP was the only power company to support the Arizona Solar Portfolio, a plan to promote solar power generation. But when it came time to put up or shut up, TEP officials complained that using solar for 1 percent of their power generation was too much.
They later complained about the revised plan to generate 0.5 percent of their power using solar, and then again about the final plan for 0.2 percent. How low can you go? Is the big, bad puddy-tat afwraid of the widdle mousey-wousey?
You bet your ass it is.
And you can also bet your ass that all of our shiny new hopes for this latest burst of solar's promise of economic liberation will be punched, kicked and shat upon by the flimflam scammers and the grid-greedy, political power companies long before it becomes a happy fact of everyday life.
WILL TUCSON'S SOLAR future continue to be guided by community cooperation for the good of all, or will it go under the thumb of TEP? Stay tuned.
Recently the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously reaffirmed their support for the Tucson Solar Alliance and its designation as the official community representative and partnership for the Million Solar Roofs Initiative. Let's hope the Tucson City Council does the same.
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