What every Southern Arizonan needs to know about his (or her) electric bill

So. My column last month was a rant against Arizona Public Service and other electric utilities across the country that are going to regulators and proposing punitive fees on owners of commercial and residential renewable-energy systems, of which I am one.

Needless to say, the utilities' tactics are provoking outrage among people who have forked out for PV panels—and confusion among the general public, who are mostly under the impression that nonpolluting, nonfracked, no-imported, inexhaustible energy is the future we all want and need.

I heard from a number of folks in response, including Dan Millis of Sierra Club Borderlands, which is launching a campaign against the gas- and coal-fired Tucson Electric Power Co. plant at Alvernon and Irvington.

A recent NAACP found the plant to be the 13th-worst environmental justice performer among hundreds of coal plants in the U.S. More than 56,000 people with a median income of $10,258 live within three miles of plant, which has no controls for sulfur dioxide. Incidentally, it loses three-fourths of a gallon of groundwater to evaporation for each kilowatt-hour, or kwh, produced.

This last piece of information was supplied by Terry Finefrock, who also got in touch. Finefrock is chief contracts and procurement manager for Pima County, for whom he buys a lot of electricity at rates that increase each year. On July 1, the county's rate increased about 16 percent; historically, rates for all Arizona utilities have increased at about 4 percent annually.

That's one reason the county has contracted for more than 7 megawatts of solar electric facilities and is finalizing a contract for an additional 1.1 megawatts. (Finefrock did not speak to me on behalf of the county, by the way.) He sent along letters he wrote to the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. In them, he proposed restructuring the current cost-plus-profit rate/surcharges by which the utilities charge their customers, and requiring that they develop plans to deploy local solar generation and storage to major population centers. Finefrock is no kind of raging greenie but a hard-core supply-chain guy who grew up at GE and Chrysler, and he makes a strong, detailed argument that what he proposes would lock in electric rates for 20 to 30 years, thereby attracting manufacturing to Southern Arizona and benefiting the whole community.

Impressed by his mastery, I met with him and learned a number of striking facts:

The utilities enjoy the highest average wage of any Arizona industry.

Cost reductions can reduce the utilities' income, so they have no incentive to become more efficient.

Residential electric ratepayers pay roughly 12 cents per kwh while some of the mines have special contracts at about 4 cents per kwh. The situation with respect to water is about the same. In other words, residential ratepayers—you, me—heavily subsidize the mines.

The solar industry currently employs more Arizonans than do the mines.

Finefrock also introduced me to his "occasional co-conspirator" in putting together local large-scale solar projects, Valerie Rauluk, the CEO of Venture Catalyst Inc. She's been advocating for renewable energy as an economic development opportunity for the region since the late 1990s.

"You know, I was just back in Pittsburgh, where I grew up," said Rauluk, wistfully. "This was a place where the economy fell completely apart—I mean no one had a job a few decades ago. Now it's absolutely booming. People came together and concentrated on building health care, education and livability as the region's focus. With the right leadership and strong community support, we could build that kind of long-term prosperity right here."

Fired up yet? Write to TEP, copy the ACC, and demand a sustainable energy plan for Southern Arizona that will control costs and reduce dependence on fossil fuel.