Energy policy and American values

American flag on the moon

And Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the solar jobs bill, SB1403, into law, and a great cry of joy and happiness was heard throughout the land.

Especially in Arizona. And, OK, in The Phoenix Sun.

Did we get carried away? Granted, we did run eleven stories about SB1403, tracking it through committee hearings in the Arizona state legislature, and during floor debate — not to mention the “Will she or won’t she?” phase when the bill sat on Brewer’s desk awaiting her veto or her signature. Thumbs up or thumbs down: and she wasn’t saying which it would be.

In the end, I think the bill deserved that kind of coverage. First, as Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, told the Sun in early June, a jobs bill is pretty important stuff in a state that had fallen to last place in job creation among the 50 states.

And the bill appears to be working already, according to the GPEC:

“The Valley is on the short list for 10 new solar projects that will announce locations this year. Projects include manufacturing, headquarter operations and research facilities, with several tied to international investment from Germany, Canada and China. Leaders also secured connections with six other companies that have future projects planned in the next two years.”

No, where we fell down on the job was in under-reporting three other bills important to the success of solar power in Arizona (and the nation). One of them is now law and two bills never made it out of the statehouse. They remain on the state’s To DO list. For now, let’s look at Arizona’s other solar victory in the first half of 2009.

Solar power in the schools, HB 2332: ENACTED, but…

HB2332Sponsored by State Rep. Tim Boone (R-Peoria), this bill allows school districts to buy electricity generated by solar panels that are owned by a private company other than a utility. That’s a simplified explanation of a very complex piece of legislation. It’s so complex that the bill itself is the beginning of the process of getting solar panels on school rooftops, not the end.

Before a single panel can go up, the Arizona Corporation Commission needs to rule on a 111-page request by SolarCity, a California-based installer/leaser.

Again, to keep it brief, the primary issue revolves around SolarCity’s status as something other than a public utility. Public utilities typically own large power plants (coal, natural gas, nuclear) and sell electricity through the grid to hundreds of thousands of customers. SolarCity’s new business model doesn’t fit that traditional definition of a utility. The company installs solar panels at schools and then sells the electricity to the school district at a predetermined price, an arrangement known as a Solar Service Agreement (SSA). SolarCity is already using this formula with schools in California.

ACC request

ACC chair and renewable energy advocate Kris Mayes recently called the request “perhaps the most complicated case, and one of the most significant cases, in the history of Arizona.”

SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass tells the Sun that “2332 should make it easier for schools to enter solar service agreements and help establish reporting requirements, but without the ACC case being approved, it won’t help much, as solar providers will not be able to offer SSAs.”

The non-profit Vote Solar Initiative recently provided this take on the ACC case:

In California … most commercial-sized systems are installed under this model. Instead of a customer buying a solar system outright, the customer instead provides access to the roof for a solar company to install and operate a system, and the customer simply buys the electricity on a kWh basis. A big benefit is that there are no upfront costs. And for non-taxpaying entities like schools and government buildings, this is the only way they can leverage the 30% federal investment tax credit. Without this mechanism, any town/school/water district that wants to go solar has to leave serious money on the table. [My emphasis]

It’s a complex case, but with one obvious fact: A lot hangs in the balance for school districts and for other non-profits wanting to take advantage of renewable energy sources.

Turning, small

The energy revolution

But this case has significance beyond Arizona’s borders and will effect far more than just schools. At issue before the ACC are the rules that will determine what kind of energy system our nation will have in the coming decades.

Will it be sustainable or will it remain focused on short term profits? Will it be efficient and flexible, or wasteful and ossified? Will our energy policy help keep America safe, or will it increase threats to our national security? Will it foster democracy or centralize authority? Will it push us to support foreign dictators, eroding our moral authority in the world and making us vulnerable to the enemies of our “friends?”

The truth is that energy policy is not primarily about energy. Energy — how we get it and how we use it — is, above all, about our values. The new energy system we’re building (through cases like the one before the ACC) will tell us, and the world, who we are as a people. It’s a great opportunity to reaffirm our best American values. Not with rhetoric, but with action.

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  1. Pingback: The Weekender | AZ Commission: “Yes” to solar for schools | The Phoenix Sun

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