Solar Power Initiative

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The solar power industry has announced an initiative that would keep in place “net metering” for those who equip their houses with solar panels. That’s where the utility gives the homeowner a one-to-one credit for any excess energy produced. Former Corporation Commissioner Chair Kris Mayes will lead the initiative, called the Arizona Solar Energy Freedom Act, and will tell us more about the measure.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon" -- hear about an initiative that reserves solar power credits for homeowners. Also an overview of prop 123, which settles a long-standing education lawsuit. A unique way to provide fresh produce in a food desert. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton gave his state of the city speech today calling for a public private partnership to build a new sports and entertainment arena in downtown Phoenix.

Greg Stanton: I as mayor will do everything I can to pursue a course that makes a new facility home to the Suns, the mercury, and the coyotes. I will absolutely not raise taxes for a new arena. Any plan for a new venue must only use the existing sports facilities fund.

Ted Simons: Stanton also addressed continued growth in downtown Phoenix and the city's expanding trade relationship with Mexico. The solar power industry has announced a citizen's initiative that would preserve credits for solar consumers who send excess power to the grid. It would protect solar users from other fees. Joining us is Kris Mayes, leading the initiative, also former chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission. Good to see you.

Kris Mayes: Thanks for having me.

Ted Simons: The Arizona Freedom Act. What are we talking about?

Kris Mayes: Essentially this is a ballot initiative proposal that would preserve the right of all Arizonans to go solar, and it would prevent the kinds of proposals that unfortunately our utilities have been making at the Corporation Commission like new demand charges on solar users, eliminating net metering, the policy that allows us to sell our excess power back to the grid if you're a solar homeowner. New high fixed charges which sort of washes out the value of solar. This will prevent that. Preserve net metering and do all of this over the next six years.

Ted Simons: Why that particular timetable?

Kris Mayes: We thought that was a reasonable period of time. We thought this is a time period that will ensure that people can go solar. It's a time period that we know great technological change is going to happen during that time period and we'll see where we are at the end of six years -- at the ends of six years. Everyone who goes solar during that time period in Arizona will have the opportunity to be grandfathered in. In other words, APS and the other utilities want to hit people with taxes and demand charges at that point, they can't hit the people who have already invested in their solar. That's happened in other states.

Ted Simons: You mentioned net metering, the idea one for one credit when you send power back to the grid. Explain exactly how that works. I want to get to the power company's argument. They got a pretty good argument, especially -- we'll get to that. Explain net metering, please.

Kris Mayes: It's a policy we established in the 2000s that essentially say if you put a solar panel on your rooftop whether you're an individual homeowner or a business you're excepting power back to the grid when you're not rat home. You essentially have a system on your house that's producing power and it's going on the grid, your neighbors are using it, the utility gets the benefit and you should be paid for the power you produce from your system that you invested in. It makes a lot of sense but you should be paid at the same rate that you pay the utility. It's called full retail net metering. The idea is that sort of one to one tradeoff is fair, and that's what we're fighting to preserve and it's something the commission supported for many years, certainly I did. I helped write the policy. It's something that has led to 65,000 solar systems going in in Arizona, Ted. 65,000. We're one of the top three states in the country for solar. Isn't that something to be proud of? Isn't that something to preserve and fight for? I think it is. We have 7,000 jobs in this state that are created by solar. That's something to fight for. We ought to be fighting for the right of everybody to produce their own power.

Ted Simons: APS will argue 65,000 folks selling back to the whole kit and caboodle means that 65,000 customers are not paying what they used to pay, A, and B, folks like me don't have solar power, I'm going to have to make up the slack to pay for the grid, for new power plants.

Kris Mayes: What I would say to that is that's pure mythology. That's a fallacy. What APS is not telling folks, not being straight about, is the fact that solar homeowners provide tremendous benefits to the grid. They want to calculate -- APS wants to calculate the so-called costs associated with solar that they allege are being passed on to other consumers. What they don't want to do is calculate all the benefits. So what are some of the benefits when people put solar panels on their roofs and the more people go solar, the more people put solar on their rooftops the fewer we have to build. That doesn't get charged to all consumers.

Ted Simons: At what point does a company like APS say, the revenues are dropping. More people are going solar. We have to do something to maintain what we have and if you're not going to pay for it because you're too busy sending power back at the grid, let's look at Ted and try to get it out of him.

Kris Mayes: First they don't have to do that. There are all these benefits that are coming from solar. Secondarily it's not our job to preserve APS. It's not the job of anyone to preserve them or shield them from competition and I think this is what this is about. We're saying it's time to put this issue before the Arizona voters. Let the people of Arizona decide this once and for all.

Ted Simons: If APS becomes the horse and buggy in the automobile age, who pays for the grid? Who maintains the grid? Who makes sure all these solar customers have something to sell back to and have power during peak demands when their batteries may not be holding electricity and they need power now?

Kris Mayes: I think first of all, the solar customers are paying for that. They are still connected to the grid, still paying a bill to APS. Over time when you start to see really high penetration rates for solar -- we're at 2%. The utilities are behaving as show the sky is falling when 2% of their customers have gone solar. They are slapping them with demand charges and with high fixed charges and slapping them with these taxes. It's not a time to panic. Hawaii, for instance, is already at 17% penetration. The sky did not fall in Hawaii. So we can do this. We can figure this out over time and I think we will do that ten years down the road we will be able to do this together. But we can't do it together if the utilities sulk.

Ted Simons: APS says this initiative is backed by California millionaires who want to see higher consumer costs for Arizona.

Kris Mayes: I think that suggests they are running scared when you start attacking people where they live.

Ted Simons: Who is backing the initiative?

Kris Mayes: Unlike APS, we're very transparent about where our money comes. From APS has been very good at hiding their dark money spending, the show is not about that. We are being completely transparent today. We announced that we do have $3 million from Solar City, which is one of the major solar providers in the state and actually throughout the country. It's a company that cares about its customers. We anticipate expanding that coalition to include a broad array of companies and individuals and organizations.

Ted Simons: Is this a yes on AZ Solar Superpac?

Kris Mayes: Yes.

Ted Simons: All right. You're leaving ASU to run this campaign. School sustainability, ASU. Why?

Kris Mayes: I'm taking a leave of absence from a job I dearly love. The sky isn't falling. Hawaii is in the 17% range.

Ted Simons: Is there a point where the sky could start tracking a little bit?

Kris Mayes: We're not going to get to those levels for a long, long time. I think it's a scare tactic that the utilities are using to scare people and to prop up their otherwise unsupportable arguments.

Ted Simons: 226,000 valid signatures by July. Not that long from now.

Kris Mayes: We got a lot of work to do. We got a bill hiking to climb. We're out there already with signature gathering signatures and putting this together. We intend to be on the ballot. We intend to give people the right to vote on this. This is the state that likes their initiatives. They like to have a direct say in this issue.

Ted Simons: All right, good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

Kris Mayes: Thank you, Ted.

Kris Mayes: Former Corporation Commissioner

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