Energy and the Election

Two Dems and a Libertarian attempt to join the all-GOP Corporation Commission

Arizona's renewable-energy future may be at stake in the race for two Corporation Commission seats. While all five candidates profess support for the concept, they differ sharply on their strategies.

Earlier this year, the commission gave preliminary approval to rules requiring electric utility companies to go from using almost no alternative energy to 15 percent by 2025 (See "Solar Strife," May 18). To pay for this transition, the ACC has suggested a $1.05 monthly tariff on residential bills, a figure Tucson Electric Power officials think is too low.

Incumbent Republican Kris Mayes was a driving force behind the commission's vote and proclaims: "It's the greatest accomplishment in the history of the ACC." She hopes for a final decision shortly, calling it "the beginning of the end for (our) reliance on fossil fuels."

As for TEP's pricing concerns, Mayes remarks: "The sky is always falling for TEP. I don't expect the tariff to be much higher."

To complement large renewable energy projects, such as TEP's solar farm in Springerville, Mayes is looking for more solar panels on homes. "Instead of doing hundreds of houses, TEP will have to do thousands," she suggests.

Democrat Richard Boyer supports the alternative-energy proposal, but says he'd amend the rules "to help make conversion possible, because we can't do it in the present climate." Expressing serious concerns about the price impacts, citing cases where similar efforts have resulted in costs 10 times higher than fossil-fuel use, Boyer adds: "The greenhouse effect is pushing us to do something."

Boyer believes the state government should subsidize the transition to renewable energy, indicating it is similar to public support for schools or highways. "If we're really serious about making this conversion, we can't assume consumers or utility companies will shoulder all the costs."

Libertarian candidate Rick Fowlkes wants to go in another direction, since he believes "the best government is less government." He also says of the new rules: "To get to 15 percent is probably unrealistic."

Fowlkes assumes the renewable-energy proposal will eliminate incentives for utility companies to lower their prices, and he thinks they will be big financial winners while consumers will be big losers. Based on that, he says he would vote against the proposal.

"I'd encourage the Legislature to give tax breaks to the utility companies instead (to promote alternative-energy development)," he says.

Democrat Mark Manoil supports the alternative-energy idea and doesn't think existing electric companies will be the major suppliers of the new power sources. "The utility companies are worried about the capital investment," Manoil says about building new alternative energy facilities, "but it's not going to be their capital."

Instead, Manoil states, "Energy entrepreneurs will build them and sell the power to the utility companies." Believing many of these projects will be small in scale, Manoil thinks this difference will be critical in holding down costs. Because of that, Manoil says, he'd vote for the new rules, then monitor how they're working.

Republican Gary Pierce is less enthusiastic about the proposal. "I don't have a problem with 2025," he says of the target date, "but 15 percent is an arbitrary number. We need a goal, but should recognize it's variable."

Pierce was picked to run after commissioner Marc Spitzer, a strong renewable-energy supporter, resigned his post and dropped out of the race in order to take a position in Washington.

"Let's see how the new rules impact the utility industry," Pierce says, "and if they cause significant cost increases (for the consumer). Let's watch it year to year and do whatever is reasonable and responsible."

Pierce also believes the commission needs to do more long-range planning, including for water use. "It would be helpful to have a 20-year plan based on sound growth numbers," he says. "That way, we can anticipate and plan for growth."

Pierce stresses the importance of financially strong utility companies. "The main mission (of the ACC) is to make sure the public gets good service at reasonable costs," he says.

Like the other candidates, Manoil was concerned about large rate increases requested earlier this year by Arizona Public Service company. "It's because of their dependence on natural gas," he says of the Phoenix utility, "but the transition to other energy sources (can change that). The ACC can be at the forefront of ushering that in, and play an important role in the state's economic and environmental health."

Fowlkes wants to see competition brought to electrical distribution, an arena now controlled by regulated monopolies. While believing the Corporation Commission should still oversee utility companies, he proposes three suppliers of electricity overlap in their boundaries in order to provide options to every user. "The best way to control prices is through competition," he says.

Boyer has called the current commission "broken," and lists examples of small, rural water companies going bankrupt and being replaced by firms that request enormous rate hikes. He also cities a similar situation with sewer service in San Manuel: "The ACC needs to have annual audits of these companies. They say they don't have funding for that, but they should demand it from the Legislature. The commission is always in a reactionary mode."

Mayes calls Boyer's charges "absurd" and points with pride to her holding regular office hours in Tucson and also her work on the Kinder Morgan pipeline issue. "We're getting the job done and protecting consumers," Mayes concludes of the all-Republican commission.

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