Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

July 9, 2008


Host: Ted Simons

solar Energy


  • Arizona has plenty of sunshine, but does it have what it takes to become a leader in solar energy?
Guests:
  • Sandy Bahr - Director, Grand Canyon Chapter, Sierra Club
  • Barbara Lockwood - Renewable Energy Manager, APS
  • Amanda Ormond - Energy Consultant, Ormond group
Category: Sustainability

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Tonight on "Horizon," find out why it takes more than sunshine for Arizona to become a leader in solar energy. Plus families and politicians speak out about the new state budget that eliminated funding for school vouchers. That's coming up next on "Horizon."

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

Ted Simons:
Hello and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Before we get to our discussion on solar energy, let's take a look at how state lawmakers performed on environmental issues. Today the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club released its annual legislative report card. Here to tell us what it says is chapter director Sandy Bahr.

Ted Simons:
Good to have you back on the program.

Sandy Bahr:
Nice to be here.

Ted Simons:
What does your report card look for and what did it find?

Sandy Bahr:
What we do is choose bills we worked on during the legislative session, and they are bills that promote environmental protection and bills that we think would harm the environment. We look at public processes such as the initiative process where we might use the process to further environmental protection, and we don't grade lawmakers on any bills on which we didn't communicate our position to them. They know up front that we were for or against.

Ted Simons:
Okay. Best marks.

Sandy Bahr:
On who got the best grades? Senator Meg Burton Cahill got an a plus in the senate. She voted pro environment 100\% of the time and did not miss any votes. That is the plus on it. People who got A's maybe missed a vote. She showed up. As well four representatives got a pluses, Chad Campbell, Theresa Ulmer -- I'm forgetting one. 28 house members got failing grades, nearly half of the body. That was discouraging. It is much higher than we've seen in recent years. We had high expectations for legislators this session, but unfortunately they failed to pass the energy bill to promote renewables and energy efficiency. They did pass a bill to undercut the Governor's ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions which thankfully she vetoed. That was a huge bill for us. Obviously global warming and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a huge issue for us.

Ted Simons:
We will talk more about that when we discuss solar energy coming up later on in the program. You will join us there as well.

Sandy Bahr:
Great thanks.

Ted Simons:
for a link to the Sierra Club's report card, you can visit our web site at azpbs.org.

Ted Simons:
Renewable energy experts join us in a moment to talk about making Arizona a leader in solar energy. First Luis Carrion introduces us to a Tucson man who makes solar power his business.

Luis Carrion:
Whether we like it or not, it seems that the population growth that we are experiencing in southern Arizona is not going to end any time soon. Along with the sprawl, the traffic, and the endless new communities taking over the desert, comes an increase in power consumption. Currently the majority of the electricity used in our community comes from coal-powered plants. This source is one of the most carbon intensive producers of energy. It seems that we might be at a tipping point in our move to use the sun as a viable choice of energy.

George Villec:
Our panels weigh 40 pounds each. They put about three pounds per square foot load on to your roof. They're not very high load.

Luis Carrion:
George Villec who owns a small company called geo innovation --

George Villec:
Every step is important to us. We're installing a six kilowatt D.C. system, which will supply approximately 70 to 80\% of this person's electricity in their home. The system also includes a battery backup feature which allows certain circuits to be powered in the event of a power failure on the grid. They have added an extra feature to that. These panels are each 190 watt panels, 36 of those panels installed on those roofs.

Luis Carrion: typical of today's environmentally conscientious consumer, but for him the life-style of living green has become his business.

George Villec:
It is a passion of mine. Part of it is the environmental push when I was growing up in the 70s, earth day, all of these things coming to pass. Pictures of the earth from the moon, and what we need and what we're hearing is that we need another Apollo push, but this time it will be on the ground. We will be able to do something on this earth that is going to be of that scale to move over to renewable energy. It is getting pretty clear that we are getting to the point where we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels and keep a healthy environment for the planet.

Luis Carrion:
The interest began at a young age, and he has been able to see the developments that have allowed the technology to become a viable and realistic source of energy for our communities.

George Villec:
A couple of things were in their favor. One of the things technology wasn't quite ready for prime time. These systems were not as reliable. Some customers were turned off by that in the early 80s. This state in particular wasn't regulating those installers. I am licensed, nationally certified, and that is what you are going to see differently at this time. The industry knows that it has to do well and keep the confidence of the customer.

Ted Simons:
Joining me to talk more about solar energy in Arizona is Barbara Lockwood, renewable energy manager for Arizona public service company, energy consultant Amanda Ormond of the Ormond group, and with us once again, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club.

Ted Simons:
good to have you all on "Horizon." thanks for joining us.

Ted Simons:
What did the legislature do this session to move along the process of solar energy in Arizona?

Barbara Lockwood:
One of the great things that they did this year was house bill 2614, which is actually an extension of an existing policy, which provides a lower property tax valuation for renewable energy generation facilities. It was very important to us for our solar generating station, new big solar plant that we announced this year.

Ted Simons:
Is there something that any of you would have liked to have seen the legislature do that they didn't quite get around to?

Sandy Bahr:
A lot. There was an energy omnibus bill that got left in the dust on the last day of the session. It included energy efficiency measures and for solar and other renewables we need to couple them with efficiency measures. That had a number of efficiency measures for public buildings and schools. They did not place a requirement on the Salt River Project.

Amanda Ormond:
There was a tax policy bill that didn't go through. One a reduced property tax assessment for large scale plants using solar or winds. Another bill proposed for solar manufacturing. Neither of those bills passed.

Ted Simons:
I want to talk about incentives. What right now, what kind of incentives does Arizona have right now regarding solar energy, both for folks who want to get in the business of solar energy and for folks who maybe want to put something on the roof?

Amanda Ormond:
The utilities have programs that are new to incent people to use small scale solar. There is a tax credit for small scale solar and the bill that Barbara just mentioned is the newest or an extension of the tax policy that is out there. There is not a lot actually on the books related to large scale or small scale solar.

Sandy Bahr:
You can get up to $1,000 tax credit if you put something on your rooftop for either solar hot water or solar photovoltaic. So that is in the books. There have been efforts to expand that. Those have been unsuccessful. They can also waive the sales tax on solar equipment. That doesn't happen in all cities.

Ted Simons:
Let's talk about the Solana Plant, what that is, where it is and the process of getting it done

Barbara Lockwood:
If it were in operation today, it would be the largest solar facility in the world. It is located just outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. The solar panels that one might put on your roof, it is a little different. It is technology that uses heat from the sun and uses that to create electricity. One of the most unique things about the technology is that you can store that heat and use it later in the day. Essentially you can have solar after the sun has gone down or solar at night, which is a tremendous advantage for large scale plants that are producing electricity.

Ted Simons:
Is this the first do you think of many of these kinds of plants in the southwest?

Barbara Lockwood:
absolutely. The potential here in Arizona is tremendous. We have a great resource here. We have fabulous developers that have entered the space. We have seen a lot of really good projects that have been proposed. This is the first one in Arizona and I'm confident it won't be the last.

Ted Simons:
Sandy are you confident? It seems like there is a lot of momentum now with solar. We had a lot of momentum back in the 70s with solar and we know where that went. Are you confident that Arizona is ready to take the lead on this?

Sandy Bahr:
I am. I think the world has changed, country has changed, and certainly Arizona has. The technologies are better, I think. If you think about the problems associated with things like global climate change, solar makes a lot more sense, and here in Arizona, we have -- whether we have -- what do we have more of than anything else, sunshine. We ought to be utilizing it. I feel like there is good, strong, bipartisan support, republicans, democrats, supporting investing in renewables. I think we're going to get there. We're at an important turning point. We think we're over the hump and we're going to move forward and it is going to take off.

Ted Simons:
We're going to move forward and we are going to take off. We haven't. Why haven't we?

Amanda Ormond:
I think we are right on the cuff. It goes to where we are in the world. Natural gas, $2 to $12 per million B.T.U. and we generate a third of our electricity from natural gas. Every time that goes up the consumer feels that. The best thing about the proposed plant is that it is a stable price. We know what the electricity will cost a year from now, three years from now, 30 years from now. We don't know what power from natural gas will cost, but we will know what solar power will cost. That is a great incentive to put in stability of price and also to start diversifying our energy sources. We primarily use natural gas, coal, nuclear now. By adding renewables, another sector of technology that makes us stronger.

Ted Simons:
Financial aspects of solar gets a lot of attention, criticism of renewable energy in general, if the market wants it, the market will get it. It doesn't need government help. Is that wrong?

Amanda Ormond:
You have to look at that. We subsidize everything. We spend tremendous amounts of funds on oil and gas exploration and traditional technologies, technologies that are mature. We have emerging technologies in renewable, other benefits, low carbon, lower water use. Renewables are competitive and maybe a better deal for consumers.

Ted Simons:
Does government have to lead this particular market? Does it have to get a bit of a push out there?

Barbara Lockwood:
The government absolutely has to state the values of the people, and the way that they do that typically is providing incentive to certain technologies. The government has to set direction and it has to be in collaboration with the consumers, the utilities, advocates, with all aspects of the community.

Ted Simons:
Is there not an argument that says if you invest now and you spend a lot of government money now, public moneys now, you could be investing in something that could be out of date in a short period of time with something as cutting edge as solar energy. Why is that not a fair argument?

Sandy Bahr:
It is not a fair argument. Many of the solar technologies have been around and in use for a long time and operating really well. So, you know, I don't think that, you know, there may be newer technologies that are more efficient and you would build upon them over time. That is no different than anything else. You use and invest in what you have, over time if something better and more efficient comes along, you use that and build upon what you already have. The major costs, as Amanda stated, the major costs for solar are the up-front costs. After that very stable costs. You don't have to worry about sky rocketing natural gas prices, you don't have to worry about the sky rocketing transportation prices. What is the cost of carbon? We know there is going to be a cost associated with carbon, and I know the utilities are thinking about that right now. With the solar energy, you don't have to worry about that. So, I think that that's why it is not a fair argument. Granted we do need to be careful that we invest prudently, and not invest in fly-by-night operations.

Ted Simons:
That was a problem, was it not, back in the 70s? You had interesting things going on in the outskirts of the market.

Amanda Ormond:
I think when you look back at the 70s, people still remember that. Still a bad taste in their mouth. We over-incentive -- huge tax incentive for hot water and photovoltaics on theirhome. A lot of people rushed into the markets. The subsidies were taken away. We won't see that now. With natural gas, we are at an international marketplace, competing against china and india for natural gas. It wasn't like that in the 70s. We learned our lesson. We are taking it slower in some of the incentives.

Sandy Bahr:
Some of those systems are still operating and operating very well. People who installed the solar hot water in the 70s with reputable companies, properly installed, they're still using them. If you install and maintain things properly, they can last a very long time.

Ted Simons:
Go ahead.

Barbara Lockwood:
There is also a difference in the providers today than there were in the 1970's. Today you see large, multinational companies with huge balance sheets that are providing this service and this technology for consumers and for utilities, and that makes all of the difference in the world the people who are standing behind the technology.

Ted Simons:
And we're also seeing things like the corporation commission saying you have to get 15\% of electricity by renewables -- what do you think about that?

Barbara Lockwood:
We think that is a great way to move forward, renewable energy in the state. It has done a lot of wonderful things of bringing us together to figure out how to do that and do it cost effectively for our customers. We believe it is a good standard for the state.

Amanda Ormond:
What policies the state needs, that is the granddaddy of all policies related to renewables. It is a little under attack now, the five commissioners on the -- the most vetted piece of policy in the last decade and a number of the candidates running for the three seats open want to dismantle it or change it substantially. Utilities have invested heavily, getting their arms around and comfortable with renewables. To change the marketplace or pull the rug out from the policy does a disservice.

Ted Simons: That is one thing about government getting into this kind of thing. When government is positively into it, you get the push. When they decide to pull back, you have inconsistency there.

Sandy Bahr: Absolutely. In most states they don't elect their utility commission. Ours is called the Arizona corporation commission, and some people don't understand that that is the entity responsible for regulating utilities. It is not called a public utilities commission, and it is maybe a little different that we elect them. I think that that is an important thing for the public to understand is there are five corporation commissioners who have a huge impact on what we do relative to our energy policies. Three of them, three of those seats are open this November. Important for people to look at that.

Ted Simons: We have about 30 seconds left. I will give you a numbers question here. One being pessimistic, ten being optimistic, scale of one to ten, solar energy in Arizona, where are you?

Barbara Lockwood: a ten.

Ted Simons: a ten!?

Sandy Bahr: I'm with her.

Ted Simons: all right.

Amanda Ormond: I am going to be a qualified ten, we have a federal policy called the investment tax credit that has not been passed by Congress. If it doesn't get passed by Congress, a lot of projects like the Solana project won't get built.

Ted Simons: Qualified ten. A nine point eight? Good enough. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon."

Ted Simons: Arizona provides tax dollars to disabled and foster kids to help them attend private schools. The constitutionality of these school vouchers is being tested in our courts. At issue is a provision of the state constitution that prohibits public money from aiding private schools. Meanwhile the new state budget eliminates voucher funding. At a press conference today, families talked about what it means to lose that money. And house speaker Jim Weiers said he's seeking legal advice on whether surplus money in the house budget can be used to fund school vouchers.

Jim Weiers: It is not a slush fund, it is moneys that have been saved because we ran the house in the most efficient way. If the rest of the state was ran like the house, we probably wouldn't have a budget deficit today. I will not make apologies for having a surplus. We are looking because of this issue and how important it is to how many people it is affecting, we are looking at the legal aspects of what we can and can't do. Hopefully we can find a place to do it.

Kristina Blackledge: Baxter is 12. He is diagnosed with autism. He has been in special education since the first grade. When he heard about this decision to take the funding away, he was traumatized. He cries almost every day with fear and anxiety about the school year starting. Instead of choice, we're limited to one option, his public school, which didn't work for him last year. So, without this program, there is no choice.

Ted Simons: Joining me is Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the institute for justice. He's representing families who use school vouchers in the court case challenging the constitutionality of the vouchers.

Ted Simons:
Thank you for joining us.

Tim Keller:
Thank you.

Ted Simons:
Let's get your response on the legislature eliminating not the program, but the funds.

Tim Keller:
Just last week, parents and children defending these programs in court scored a crucial first round victory in the Arizona Supreme Court when the court said that the programs can continue while the case is being appealed. And just as that decision came down, the Arizona legislature pulled that lifeline that was given to them by eliminating the funding for these programs for the next year.

Ted Simons:
In terms of the court case, how does this action by the legislature affect the court case, do you think?

Tim Keller:
The court case will continue to move forward. The legislature did not eliminate the programs. The programs are still on the books. They are simply not funded this school year. If the Arizona Supreme Court ultimately upholds the program as all of its past precedent would indicate that it will, future legislatures will be able to step in and fully fund the program.

Ted Simons:
Where are we in the court case?

Tim Keller:
We have asked two things of the court. One, we asked the court to continue the programs. And number two, we asked the court to officially accept review of the case. We are still waiting for the court to officially grant review. We have confidence that it will take the case.

Ted Simons:
Let's talk about what Speaker Weiers was referring to today, the money in the state budget toward these vouchers. Legally can they do it?

Tim Keller:
I do not honestly know the answer to that question. Whether they can take the funds and -- I hope the answer is yes. Yet at the same time I don't want parents who have been relying on those scholarships to have hope that will be taken away from them if the answer is no.

Ted Simons:
Is the concept of public money a factor here if the house used these funds?

Tim Keller:
The same constitutional implications exist for these funds as any other funds, funds originally appropriated. There is an effort underway now by private organizations, Arizona's school tuition organizations are trying to step into the breach, fill the gap, help these parents stay in the schools by raising money to fund scholarships for these children. Ted, your viewers right now, if they were interested in helping out, could go to www.astoa.com, and there is a link that says make a donation to help kids stay in their schools. Every dollar that they donate is available for a dollar for dollar tax credit up to $1,000 for married couples, $500 for individuals.

Ted Simons:
It sounds like they're going to have to make decisions.

Tim Keller:
Right now parents are scrambling. They are in a tough situation. Many of the schools they would have wanted to attend are full, which leaves them few options. As the parent said, many of the parents had a choice. Now that they don't have a choice, they really don't have a chance.

Ted Simons:
Thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

Tim Keller:
thank you.

Ted Simons:
You may have health insurance, but it might not be enough to cover a catastrophic illness. We look at how the current state of health care affects you and your pocketbook Thursday at 7:00 on "Horizon."

Ted Simons:
That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

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