Arizona Utility Blinks in Bitter Battle Over Rooftop Solar

Arizona’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, is withdrawing its bid to jack up monthly fees for rooftop solar users in its territory. The retreat, tendered last week to the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), capped an eventful month in the high-stakes battle between utilities and solar advocates that’s raging across Arizona rooftops. The party with the most bruises is not Arizona Public Service (APS), however, but the ACC itself. The elected body referees the state’s power markets, but all five of its commissioners now face accusations of bias that challenge their ability to fairly adjudicate the rooftop solar dispute.

Arizona’s solar dispute is hot, but not unique. Across the United States utilities are fighting to contain or eliminate “net metering” policies that pay rooftop solar users retail prices for the surplus power that their panels export to the grid (thus offsetting retail charges for power they consume at night). Utilities argue that solar customers rely heavily on the grid but, under net metering, pay little or nothing to maintain it. Over the past year all of Arizona’s utilities levied or proposed new fees for customers installing rooftop solar systems. APS’s proposal worked out to about $21 per month.

Solar advocates argue that rooftop solar provides a variety of benefits to the grid—such as reducing consumption of fossil fuels and lessening reliance on distant power plants. They see fees from utilities such as APS, which owns fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants, as unfair competition.

In August, ACC staff sided with solar advocates’ call to defer consideration of proposed fees so they could be reviewed in the broader context of the utility’s overall business. When the ACC commissioners voted to overrule, calling for immediate hearings on solar fees, San Francisco-based solar installer Sunrun and two former commissioners filed challenges with the ACC, alleging bias.

The bias filings allege that the two commissioners elected in 2014 allegedly benefited from $3.2 million in secret campaign donations to independent groups by APS. The filings also cite a third commissioner elected in 2012 for inappropriate public comments about rooftop solar users. (Earlier challenges accuse the remaining two commissioners of bias based on lobbying activities prior to their election in 2012.)

APS presents these attacks as a bid by solar advocates to avoid debating the proposed utility fees on the merits. APS writes:

They have retreated to procedural tactics and character attacks designed to discredit elected officials and undermine the integrity of the Arizona Corporation Commission.The obvious goal is to paralyze the Commission.

However, allegations of improper campaign contributions by APS have been swirling in the Arizona media for over a year. APS acknowledges that it is politically active, and has refused to confirm or deny the allegations.

Under state law independent groups financing political advertisements in Arizona are not obligated to reveal their donors, so tracking such “dark money” spending is difficult. The Arizona Republic, Phoenix’ leading daily newspaper, reported last month that two commissioners are seeking ACC staff advice as to whether the ACC can compel utilities such as APS to reveal their political contributions.

According to the Republic the commissioners elected in 2012 benefited from contributions from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, including money from Arizona Public Service. And it writes that the two commissioners elected last year benefited from “independent political campaigns widely believed to be financed with so-called dark-money from APS.”

In March 2015 an organization tracking campaign finance contributions revealed that a foundation led by a former APS chairman and CEO that is normally dedicated to supporting Arizona State University had inexplicably given $100,000 to a “shadowy” nonprofit called Save Our Future Now. That group spent $2.4 million on TV ads attacking pro-solar ACC candidates in 2014.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions


Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy. Continue reading

First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment

SEJ-Awards-logo_1Time to toot my horn. The Society of Environmental Journalists has honoured my work in their 2015 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. I took first place in Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for “History, Technology, Politics and Impact of Solar Power” — a series of articles published in MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum magazines:

Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?
Topaz Turns On 9 Million Solar Panels
Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid
How Rooftop Solar Can Stabilize the GridContinue reading

Renewable Minigrids Should Be the End Goal for Rural Poor

The percentage of population with grid access declined in many of the 20 least-electrified nations between 2010 & 2012. Image: SE4ALL

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, launched in New York City this week amidst the latest gathering of the United Nations’ universal energy access program.

Power For All brings together businesses and not-for-profit organizations that distribute off-grid solutions, including solar-LED lights and home power systems. Founding members include San Francisco-based d.light; Arusha, Tanzania-based Off Grid Electric; and London-based NGO SolarAid—owner of solar-LED light global market leader SunnyMoney, which sold 650,000 lights last year.

Their message is that bottom-up distributed energy solutions should be thepreferred solution for assuring universal access to electricity because they are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions.

Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to Power for All’s argument. Continue reading

Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to a 100% Renewable Power Grid

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply.

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says. Continue reading

NRC Opposes European Moves to Tighten Nuclear Safety Post-Fukushima

TEPCO.120914Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels (RPVs)—the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings in the event of a loss-of-cooling accident like the one that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. As the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi showed, the next layer of defense against a nuclear release—the so-called containment vessels—can not be counted on to actually contain molten nuclear fuel that breaches the RPV.

Nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several RPVs, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture—especially in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs. Continue reading

Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading