Energy policy and American values

American flag on the moon

AndArizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the solar jobs bill, SB1403, intolaw, 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 storiesabout SB1403, tracking it through committee hearings in the Arizonastate legislature, and during floor debate — not to mention the “Willshe or won’t she?” phase when the bill sat on Brewer’s desk awaitingher veto or her signature. Thumbs up or thumbs down: and she wasn’tsaying 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 Sunin early June, a jobs bill is pretty important stuff in a state thathad 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 10new solar projects that will announce locations this year. Projectsinclude manufacturing, headquarter operations and research facilities,with several tied to international investment from Germany, Canada andChina. Leaders also secured connections with six other companies thathave future projects planned in the next two years.”

No, where we fell down on the job was in under-reporting three otherbills important to the success of solar power in Arizona (and thenation). One of them is now law and two bills never made it out of thestatehouse. They remain on the state’s To DO list. For now, let’s lookat 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 electricitygenerated by solar panels that are owned by a private company otherthan a utility. That’s a simplified explanation of a very complex pieceof 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 thana public utility. Public utilities typically own large power plants(coal, natural gas, nuclear) and sell electricity through the grid tohundreds of thousands of customers. SolarCity’s new business modeldoesn’t fit that traditional definition of a utility. The companyinstalls solar panels at schools and then sells the electricity to theschool district at a predetermined price, an arrangement known as aSolar Service Agreement (SSA). SolarCity is already using this formulawith 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 “2332should make it easier for schools to enter solar service agreements andhelp establish reporting requirements, but without the ACC case beingapproved, it won’t help much, as solar providers will not be able tooffer SSAs.”

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

In California … most commercial-sizedsystems are installed under this model. Instead of a customer buying asolar system outright, the customer instead provides access to the rooffor a solar company to install and operate a system, and the customersimply buys the electricity on a kWh basis. A big benefit is that thereare no upfront costs. And for non-taxpaying entities like schoolsand government buildings, this is the only way they can leverage the30% federal investment tax credit. Without this mechanism, anytown/school/water district that wants to go solar has to leave seriousmoney on the table. [My emphasis]

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

The energy revolution

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

Will it be sustainable or will it remain focused on short termprofits? Will it be efficient and flexible, or wasteful and ossified?Will our energy policy help keep America safe, or will it increasethreats to our national security? Will it foster democracy orcentralize authority? Will it push us to support foreign dictators,eroding our moral authority in the world and making us vulnerable tothe 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 ourvalues. The new energy system we’re building (through cases like theone before the ACC) will tell us, and the world, who we are as apeople. It’s a great opportunity to reaffirm our best American values.Not with rhetoric, but with action.



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