Or, the Vanity Costs of Being Robert J. Robb and Pushing Coal-Burning in the Sunniest State in the U.S.

Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb’s position that solar in Arizona is “vanity” and somehow not good for Arizona doesn’t pass the smell test.

Tell that to Germany, which recently got 74% of its energy from clean sources on a particularly sunny, windy day. Compare that to sunny Arizona at 40 to 50% coal generation and 3.2% clean energy. According to the latest Energy Information Administration data, Arizona’s share of clean energy is a very weak 3.2%. 

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When it comes to clean energy, Arizona is on par with Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the entire Southeastern U.S. Arizona is far, far behind California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho – even coal-dominated Wyoming has a larger percentage of clean energy. 

I want to make it clear that Arizona burns much of its coal to make electricity for air conditioning. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, coal-fired power is the largest single source of heat-trapping CO2, as well as a host of other toxics including mercury.  Burning coal to make electricity for air conditioning is not a long-term solution, as it creates far more heat than cooling over time.  Burning coal for electricity essentially makes Arizona — and the planet — uninhabitable.

I suspect Robert J. Robb and his masters will run out of anti-solar ammo in direct proportion to the declining levels of Lake Mead.  Most people don’t realize that coal-fired power uses a lot of water.

Lake Mead, which supplies half the state’s water supply, declined 6 feet in the past month. The lake is going down about 20 feet/year.  Do the math: that’s roughly 10 years until AZ loses half its water supply, and Tucson loses 72%. When (“if” is not really an option with climate change figured in) the lake reaches 895 feet, there will be no more water headed down the Central Arizona Project, the 330-mile long concrete ditch that uses 500 MW of coal power to pump water 2,400 feet uphill to Tucson.

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Let’s face it, Arizona isn’t exactly a standard-setter for good land use and water policy.  But rather than listen to experts like William deBuys, who wrote a number of L.A. Times articles based on his excellent book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the Southwest, Arizona leaders simply shoot the messenger.

As a water-energy expert said at a Tucson conference in late 2013, using coal to pump water uphill in an arid state is ‘maladaptive.’  Using coal to generate electricity for ever-increasing air conditioning needs is just plain stupid.

Arizona ratepayers pay APS CEO Don Brandt $11 million/year to kill solar, increase coal, fight coal compliance regulations such as safe storage of coal ash, and ignore policies used in other states such as aggregated and virtual net metering, PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) smart grid, and energy imbalance markets. 

APS’ high-paid executives likely head to San Diego when the weather in Phoenix becomes unbearable. And ‘unbearable’ weather is getting more frequent.  In 2011, Phoenix had 30 days over 110 degrees. Anecdotally, I can tell you that at around 115 the volatile petrochemicals start to come out of the pavement and make you feel sick.

Don, you’d better check and make sure San Diego can provide you with a pool and amenities, as much of its water also comes from the Colorado River.

So, why isn’t this on the front page of the Arizona newspapers?

Arizona is run by right-wing ideologues, mining executives, car-salesmen-turned-utility-executives and coal-fired power.  The legislature spends its time gay-bashing and running Hispanics out. Of course they prefer coal to solar. If you think otherwise, you will not be part of the ALEC-run political system. From what I’ve seen around the U.S., a more fool-hardy set of political “leaders” is hard to find. The futility of the fight against solar has parallels with civil rights. Sorry, Arizona, but solar is as inevitable as racial integration.

Meanwhile, the Governor pretends to be the Solar Queen while the solar industry bleeds jobs, and Arizona remains a piddling ~3.2% solar and 40-50% coal.  Let me repeat: the sunniest state in the U.S. is ~3.2% solar, and 40-50% coal – 40% if you count the 30% of generation Arizona sends out of state, and almost 50% if you count in-state electricity consumption. 

To make matters even more outrageous for Arizona’s ratepayers, its utilities import 90% of its fossil fuel for electricity.  Think about it: Arizona sends $2.5 to $3 billion per year to New Mexico, Texas and Colorado for coal and natural gas.

In other words, let’s make the natural gas and coal industry rich, while ignoring the increasingly obvious ‘external’ costs of fossil fuels. Arizona has 7 of the 44 most hazardous coal ash sites in the U.S. Look what happened in North Carolina: one coal ash spill will cost at least $1 billion, and cleaning up 32 of Duke’s ash ponds in North Carolina alone will cost $10 billion.  And as former APS coal czar Ed Fox can tell you, coal’s ‘externalities’ – health and other damages – are 17 to 27 cents/kWh. So much for “cheap” coal.

The cost for emissions control on the dirty old Four Corners plant is $400M – twice what APS paid to purchase the plant; and one that increases APS’ coal portfolio by about 180 MW. All told, the rate increase to buy and clean up an ancient and dirty coal burner will be $600M or more, and result in a monthly bill increase of 3-4-5% when all the coal compliance costs kick in around 2016. APS’ budget for rooftop solar is a laughable $3 million/year.

You wanna buy a coal plant in Arizona?

The bottom line is that anyone who thinks the Arizona Corporation Commissioners (not the staff, there are many wonderful people on staff) care more about the people than say, its former clients Chevron (Brenda Burns), or the fossil-fuel-billionaire-Koch Brothers (Brenda Burns was President of the Koch brothers-funded ALEC in 1999 and served on the board 9 years) is seriously deluded.  You’d think Susan Bitter-Smith would ‘get it’ on water, but as former Board Chair of the climate-denying Central Arizona Project she doesn’t appear too concerned about running out of water. Commissioner Bob Burns has asked APS some hard questions, such as how much money APS spent lobbying against solar, showing some much-needed spine on the board.

Commissioners: your stance that global climate change doesn’t exist is running headlong into Reality.

ACC Chairman Bob Stump recently replied to one of my Tweets by stating “don’t get excited, imagine those coal plants are burning incense.” This is the man who is responsible for Arizona’s energy future, who will make decisions on billions of dollars of investment.   These issues aren’t a joke, and his response isn’t merely sad, it’s tragic for Arizona’s 6.3 million residents, most of whom have no idea of the tragedy that will surely unfold.  The smoke signals are as unmistakable as the fires burning in the West.

Killing solar in Arizona is no joke. It’s the equivalent of shooting both of your feet.

Chihuly glass teaser image via eternalphotography/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license. Note: “The artist permits and encourages photography of the artwork in this exhibition for educational and non-commercial use only.”