Heated Struggle

Big-spending PACs fight for and against Prop 127, which would require utility companies to increase use of renewable energy

Voters will decide whether to dramatically increase the amount of renewable energy that the state's utilities get from renewable energy sources such as solar.

And both supporters and opponents are engaged in a fierce and expensive battle, with each side's predominant PAC landing among the top three highest-funded committees in Arizona this election year, according to the Secretary of State website.

Arizona Prop 127 is a renewable energy standards initiative to amend the state constitution to require power utilities to receive more of their electricity from renewable resources. This percentage would increase each year, from 12 percent in 2020 ultimately to 50 percent in 2030.

Supporters of the prop point to the state's abundance of sunshine and say Arizona can produce far more than just 6 percent of the state's electricity from solar energy. But opponents say the proposition could have unintended consequences that would drive up utility costs for Arizonans.

If passed, Prop 127 would effectively increase an existing requirement passed by the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2006. This mandate, known as the Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff (REST), already requires regulated electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025.

The proposition is backed by the NextGen Climate Action committee, a PAC founded by billionaire philanthropist and environmentalist Tom Steyer. The NextGen-backed, pro-environment campaign is called "Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona." Steyer has spent more than $8 million funding the campaign to get Prop 127 on the ballot and to persuade voters to pass it.

Steyer said the proposition will "lead to lower costs and save a lot of money for consumers. It leads to clean air and a lot better health outcomes for Arizonans, and it should create literally tens of thousands of jobs in the state of Arizona."

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona also points to solar now being cheaper to produce than fossil fuels as a main reason for supporting the sustainable energy.

The proposition is opposed by multiple large corporations, including TEP and the Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, owner of the Arizona Public Service power company. Pinnacle West's anti-Prop 127 PAC, called "Arizonans for Affordable Electricity," calls the proposition a "scam" and bases their campaign on the alleged loss of jobs should it pass. Pinnacle West has spent more than $11 million funding ads and campaigns against Prop 127.

"Everyone supports renewable energy," said Matthew Benson, spokesperson for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity. "The question is whether we are going to have an Arizona plan that is created and implemented by Arizona leaders and officials, or whether we're going to have a plan crammed down our throats by a political activist."

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity claims the power bill for an average Arizona household will increase by $1,000 a year if voters approve the proposition, whereas TEP sets their estimate near $500. They also estimate passage of the initiative will end thousands of Arizona jobs and cost more than $70 billion worth of economic activity into 2060.

The power utility-backed Arizonans for Affordable Electricity made a failed attempt to strike the renewable energy measure from the November ballot, claiming the initiative is misleading. Arizona courts rejected the claims.

Another source of discussion in this race is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, outside of Tonopah.

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity claims the passage of this proposition would force Palo Verde to close, stating, "Because the initiative does not consider nuclear power a 'clean' energy source, experts say Palo Verde would be forced to close by 2025... Closing Palo Verde would be economically and environmentally devastating."

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona disputes these claims, saying "Palo Verde nuclear plant will stay open after Prop 127 passes. As part of their multi-million-dollar campaign against Prop 127, utility monopoly APS has been trying to scare voters by threatening to close Palo Verde. But the truth is that APS won't—and can't—close Palo Verde."

The advertising campaigns on the pro- and anti-Prop 127 committees have degraded to nothing short of shouting matches, with Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona stating "We Can't Trust Anything APS Says," and Arizonans for Affordable Electricity stating there are "violent felons collecting signatures" for the clean energy campaign.

The point of contention does not seem to be whether or not Arizonans need to increase their solar usage, but whether Prop 127 is attempting to prematurely force the state into clean energy.

Data points to solar being one of the predominant energy sources of the future. The cost of constructing solar panels has steadily decreased over the years; in 2016, construction costs averaged $2,436 per kilowatt, down from $3,705 in 2013. In addition, in 2017 solar surpassed biomass to become third-most prevalent renewable electricity source in the world (still behind hydroelectric and wind).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2016, two-fifths of Arizona's renewable electricity generation came from solar energy. This resulted in the state ranking second in the nation in utility-scale electricity generation from solar energy. However, the state still only receives roughly 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources. EIA's 2016 estimates place Arizona's energy from fossil fuels at 1227 trillion BTUs, while energy from sustainable sources is at 158 trillion BTUs.

The battle to increase Arizona's use of renewable energy comes after APS-backed Arizona Corporation Commission members have sharply reduced the state's incentives for rooftop solar at the behest of utility companies. Earlier this month, commissioners approved a request from TEP to reduce the amount the utility has to pay future rooftop solar owners for the excess energy produced by their solar panels, meaning homeowners who install the pricey systems can expect to see a smaller reduction in their electric bills.

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