Report Cards Are In – Corp Comm Deserves Poor Marks for 2013

Kevin Hengehold February 23, 2014 0

Queen Creek Solar

Almost exactly one year ago Bob Stump was giving his first speech as Arizona Corporation Commission chair stating that “the days of cheerleading for one energy source over another are over”, new Commissioners Susan Bitter Smith and Bob Burns were taking their oaths, and the Commission seemed ready to tap the breaks on what had previously been a steady charge into global solar energy leadership.

Despite a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) set at roughly half that of surrounding states, we learned in the early days of 2013 that Arizona was now America’s “number one” solar state in terms of solar energy per capita – an incredible accomplishment. More energy dollars than ever before were staying here at home, putting almost 10,000 Arizona-based construction workers, electricians, and developers on the job, while making gains in cleaning up Arizona’s air and addressing greenhouse gas pollution.

The bi-partisan commitment to making Arizona a solar capital was paying dividends not only in keeping energy dollars in-state (rather than sent out-of-state to import fossil fuels), but competition and economies of scale were driving solar panel prices to record lows – a validation of the Commission’s incentive policy.

In spite of this validation, 2013 presented threat-after-threat to Arizona’s solar future. When the Commission could have stayed-the-course, it often opted to entertain the whims of utility executives bent on squashing their largest long-term threat: energy in the hands of the people in the form of local, pollution-free rooftop solar. Here’s my report card for our five, state-wide elected Corporation Commissioners in 2013.

Chairman Bob Stump: C-
In classic Bob Stump fashion, he tap danced around being a defender of Arizona’s solar progress, and siding with monopoly utility interests in 2013. For years Stump has recognized and even praised the growth of solar energy in Arizona. In a recent press release he called solar in Arizona an “American success story.”

As chair however, Stump deserves to be judged according to the overall results of the agency – and in 2013 two major setbacks occurred on his watch and with his votes. (1) January’s abrupt and unexpected elimination of commercial solar incentives, which “effectively killed the commercial solar market in Arizona” according to a prominent installer, and (2) a brand new never-before-seen monthly charge on rooftop solar of 70 cents/kW or roughly $5 for the average residential solar customer.

Early signs point to this charge putting a serious damper on residential solar sales. On Tuesday APS reported 280 rooftop installations in January compared to 583 during the same month last year.

Stump’s 2013 low point? In the heat of the Commission’s discussion over the charge on rooftop solar, a representative from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council rightly pointed out that the Commission had not done its due diligence in exploring the true costs/benefits of rooftop solar and should not rush into a new charge without adequate information. Stump quickly asserted that Commissioners had “reached a consensus” regarding the necessity for a charge. With that, Stump shut down any discussion of the grid-benefits of rooftop solar (which are substantial), and attorneys and stakeholders were left arguing over how-much the Commission should tax adopters of solar energy.

Commissioner Gary Pierce: F+

Pierce was probably APS’ favorite Commissioner in 2013 as he did what he could to forward the utility’s agenda. He started the year with a bang, floating a smoke-and-mirrors amendment to decrease Arizona’s popular Renewable Energy Standard by subtracting a significant segment of customers from which the 15% standard is calculated. He dropped the idea, but only after pushback from the public and an embarrassing interview on PBS Horizon.

During November’s rooftop solar debate, Pierce was one of two votes against the new $5/month charge on rooftop solar. His reasoning? He felt the charge was not high enough, and supported a tax in the range of what APS had requested; $50-$100 per month. A number even approaching that amount would have truly decimated the rooftop solar industry, a fact further validated as we begin to see the substantial negative impacts resulting from the $5 monthly charge.

Pierce gets the “+” only because while he supported a crippling $50-100 per-month charge on rooftop solar, he also proposed a corresponding temporary increase in incentives so that the damage to rooftop solar would at least be gradual (but still devastating). Commissioner Brenda Burns wanted an APS-level charge without corresponding incentives.

Commissioner Brenda Burns: F

It’s hard to imagine a Commissioner more antagonistic towards solar energy throughout her career at the ACC – and 2013 proved no different. Burns voiced immediate support for Pierce’s early-year flirtation with lowering the Renewable Energy Standard, and clearly believes through her words and actions that local, pollution-free electricity has little place in Arizona’s energy mix.

Her support for a $50-100 charge on rooftop solar, without corresponding incentives, means she was actually more anti-solar than APS (an astounding accomplishment) this year. The utility supported a temporary increase to rooftop solar incentives even while it was advocating for the dismantling of net metering. A charge of the $50-100 magnitude would have resulted in thousands of layoffs and likely a Everest-esque drop off in solar installations. Years of bi-partisan work preparing Arizona for global energy leadership would have crumbled had Burns been able to win the support of her colleagues. The best thing Burns did for Arizona’s energy future in 2013 was announce her intentions to not run for re-election in 2014.

Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith: C+

Bitter Smith brought some much-needed balance to the ACC in 2013, helping to counter the aggressively pro-monopoly, anti-solar duo of Pierce and Brenda Burns. However her votes bring her well shy of deserving praise from solar advocates – with one exception. Bitter Smith put her support behind a small incentive (a few cents in cost per month for the average ratepayer) for solar water heating – the cheapest, and many think, most efficient way to take advantage of Arizona’s abundant sunshine. Bitter Smith will be a Commissioner-to-watch in 2014 and beyond as she may assume the Jan Brewer-Kris Mayes mantle of solar-business friendly Republican leadership.

Her ideology is still an open question as she stayed mostly silent on the bench during the rooftop solar debate when she could have allowed and encouraged discussion of the well-established grid-benefits of rooftop solar and advocated against her colleague’s rush to apply a charge outside of a rate case, as ACC staff and many others had warned against.

Commissioner Bob Burns: C

Burns delivered perhaps the best moment of 2013 when he requested that APS disclose exactly how much money it was spending on anti-solar television ads and if ratepayers were footing the bill. Instead of following through and exploring how the Commission could limit such expensive ratepayer-funded public relations battles in the future, Burns walked-back his transparency efforts in his opening statement on the day of the rooftop solar vote. Nevertheless, he did the public a service by shedding light on the almost $4 million APS had spent disparaging solar. Like Bitter Smith, his votes leave much to be desired, but there is no question that Burns was critical to the defeat of the Pierce and Brenda Burns push to apply the would-be crippling $50-100/month charge on rooftop solar.

Arizonans can take heart that, while battered and bruised, the state’s burgeoning private solar industry persevered through its toughest year to date.