Part 1: Energy in Arizona

All this week we’re looking at renewable energy in Arizona. Though the sun shines on the state for hundreds of days a year, most of Arizona’s energy needs are still met by gas, coal and nuclear power.  But as KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer reports, that may not always be the case.

When you think of Arizona and renewable energy, images of solar panels probably come to mind.  But in reality, solar is just part of the state’s growing renewable future.

At a landfill gas station operated by Tucson Electric Power or TEP, site engineer John Pletts explains how this kind of station works with the help of organisms…

“Micro-organisms, bacteria, just like your compost pile out back.  Basically I have a vacuum system under the landfill,” Pletts says.

The vacuum sends the landfill gas to a filter which removes moisture, and sends pure methane to an electric power plant a few miles away.  TEP then burns the gas to heat water and make steam, turning turbines, and powering homes.

Landfill gas
The biogas machinery at a Tucson landfill.

It’s a small project, but also an example of the wide range of renewable energy technologies available.

“Arizona utilties have done a good job at exploring the possibilities out there,” says  Joe Salkowski with TEP.  The utility serves about 400,000 customers in southern Arizona.

“It’s difficult to develop these technologies and new sources of generation in the climate we find ourselves in,” he says. “It’s difficult to ask creditors to look forward 20 years.”

Salkowski says the current economic difficulties have caused banks to tighten credit, making it harder for Arizona’s utilities to invest in big renewable energy projects.  But credit crunch or no, the state’s utilities must develop more renewable energy. 

Arizona’s utility regulator the Corporation Commission requires each utility to have 15 percent of its power generated from renewable sources by 2025. Arizona was the first state to make such a requirement, though many states have subsequently followed suit.

“We are in an environment in which energy is increasing concern for Arizonans,” says Kris Mayes, a Corporation Commissioner and a strong supporter of renewable technologies. “We are improving the diversity of our energy portfolio by increasing the mix of energy including solar, but we’re not there yet by any means.”

Mayes credits Arizona’s 15 percent requirement as a catalyst for utilities to build larger-scaled renewable energy projects.  She says before the requirement, utilities balked at the idea of paying more for energy not produced with gas or coal.

Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes (right)

“Right now, the fact of the matter is, it’s true solar is a little more expensive than traditional fired electricity, but there’s going to be a point when that’s not the case,” she says.

Without strict renewable energy policies, utilities wouldn’t invest in projects like Solana, Mayes says. That’s a massive concentrating solar energy plant planned to provide power to Arizona Public Service, or APS, by 2012. 

“Smaller projects tend to be more of a signal of a less mature marketplace,” says Pat Dinkel, director of resource acquisition and renewable energy for APS.  “The real sign of a market coming into its own and maturing is the larger, more knowledgeable, more efficient players putting projects on the table and we’re starting to see that.”

Dinkel says Arizona is in a good place in terms of energy.  He says the state’s utilities are more flexible in possible energy sources than other states or countries, because of the research and planning Arizona is doing, while anticipating continued growth. 

But Dinkel also admits the Solana project probably wouldn’t have been okay’d without a government tax credit to help it along.

“What the investment tax credit has done is allowed us to get into renewables certainly years before the overall dynamics…might have created that opportunity,” he says.

Solar technology is still expensive, Dinkel adds, though costs have fallen dramatically over the last years. 

An APS customer’s daytime power rate maybe 13.7 cents per kilowatt hour in winter months, but if that customer wanted pure solar power they would pay more than double at 30.3 cents.  And that disparity may be the biggest roadblock for solar power.

“Our electricity rates are low.  I think that’s really what’s stopping us from being a leader,” says Lori Singleton, manager for sustainability initiatives and emerging technologies for Salt River Project, or SRP.

“The sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.  There’s not a silver bullet as it relates to renewable energy or energy in general,” she says.

Officials at most of Arizona’s utilities say they’re comfortable with how the state is developing its renewable energy infrastructure, but corporation commissioner Kris Mayes says progress is still slow going, though there’s anticipation for things to come.

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