It may have seemed like another ordinary night at the Desert Botanical Garden, but it was anything but. Renewable energy leaders from across Arizona came together for Arizona’s Energy Resilience Summit to discuss the roadmap for Arizona’s energy future.
The panel included a diverse array of energy experts, including: Max Gruenig, who explained Germany’s national shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy; Eduardo Gonzalez, Mexico’s Deputy Trade Commissioner of ProMexico who recruited many renewable energy companies to make their products in Mexico; and Ann Marie Chischilly, the Executive Director of the Northern Arizona University Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals. The audience was also comprised of many experts in the field. Gary Dirks, former president of BP Asia and current Director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, sat in the crowd amongst members of Tempe’s Sustainability Commission ; activist groups such as Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Interfaith Power and Light; CEOs of solar companies, and many other engaged citizens and organizations from Arizona.
The audience expressed a particular interest in the local politicians who were on the panel, including: Arizona State Senator, Bob Worsley, Arizona Corporate Commission (ACC) commissioner Bob Burns, and former ACC commissioner Kristin Mayes. One member of the crowd posed a question on a very contentious issue, ‘how can a publicly traded utility company such as APS, care about solar energy, if their priority is to generate profits for their shareholders?’ Max Gruenig replied, it should not matter that APS is a public company. As soon as the words left his mouth, a smirk appeared from members of the panel and throughout the audience. Almost everybody in the room knew why solar hasn’t taken off in Arizona: because of politics.
Kristin Mayes chimed in on the same APS question in very frank terms, “I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that we are making this really dramatic energy transition, in the context of an energy system, that is largely controlled by an investor owned utilities.” Three out of five ACC votes are needed for regulations to pass, and Commissioners Bob Burns and Doug Little are already on board with solar regulation changes. Kristin Mayes challenged the audience to go “down to the commission on a regular basis” to convince newly elected Commissioner Boyd Dunn to support these two commissioners and not kill the distributed generation (DG) carve out.
A member from the Citizens’ Climate Lobby asked the panel why a price on carbon had not been implemented in Arizona. It is no secret Arizona is a conservative state, and to this regard, Commissioner Bob Burns replied, “If it looks like a tax, walks like a tax, it ain't gonna pass in Arizona.” The new presidential election was mentioned and Senator Bob Worsley stated that getting solar regulations passed at the federal level is now unlikely, though that should not matter. He empathically said that the market is going to be the biggest driving force for growth in the solar energy market. Even with solar energy's momentum, the audience voiced their frustrations because of Arizona’s slow adoption of solar energy compared to the rest of the world.
Solar has now become the cheapest form of energy in the world. Some of the largest companies in the US, including Apple and Google, want to run off 100% renewable energy and have enormous purchase power agreements (PPA) to reach their goals.
The last comment of the night came from Peter Byck, who told the elected officials on the panel that they are underestimating their own power: “I don’t think it is as far as you guys think it is,” he said. There was this great energy in the room; those in attendance want to see The Valley of the Sun become powered by the sun. Although there may be a solar energy breakthrough soon, the audience understood that challenges lie ahead. Commissioner Bob Burns spoke about “the comfort level of the monopoly” and how power companies would rather not change. The solar advocates in attendance could feel the momentum behind them, but also see the great hill in front. If Arizona finally becomes a state powered by solar, it will be because of the leaders in that room. As it turned out, the only resilient thing at Arizona’s Energy Resilience Summit — was the status quo.