Does The Renewable Energy Fight In Arizona Foretell Our Future?

Arizona State Senator Kirsten Engel talks about the challenge facing new standards in a battleground state and what it could mean for the rest of the country

As many of us have turned our attention in recent months to the newly inaugurated Biden Administration and the possibility of a national renewable energy standard to decarbonize our electricity sector by 2035, activity in the states hasn’t stopped. But while clean energy initiatives in states were one of the few beacons of hope during the very dark past four years on climate action, in Arizona, a renewable energy standard is now under attack. The slim majority of Republicans in the state legislature could undercut the authority of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the state’s utility regulator that has recently set a target to hit 100% renewable energy in Arizona by 2050. I spoke Arizona State Senator Kirsten Engel about what’s going on, the status of the legislation and what this could mean for the rest of the nation. The below transcript is a portion of our conversation, edited for clarity. The entire conversation is also available to view in a video below.

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Now for the interview…

The Climate Weekly: Currently, there are these bills being pushed by Republicans in the Arizona state legislature and they are attacking this clean energy standard set by utility regulators at the Arizona Corporation Commission. Now, on The Climate Pod, we care a great deal about renewable energy standards because this one of the most effective policy tools anyone has to actually make meaningful change. Before we talk about what concerns you about the bill, let’s step back here - how did this renewable energy standard get adopted in Arizona?

Sen. Kirsten Engel: So these standards were the first time that revisions [were made] to standards that were set in 2006. We have some of the lowest renewable energy standards of our region. And so it’s been a high priority of clean energy advocates and climate activists and the business community that we would actually revise and strengthen these standards. And finally, the Arizona Corporation Commission - with a bipartisan vote on the commission - voted to go forward with the rulemaking to have 100% clean energy by 2050. It was a compromise, but it has some benchmarks along the way and it’s a real important step forward here. 

TCW: What’s happening now with these bills that has you concerned?

Engel: Well, that’s all going on, we’re all celebrating [the new clean energy rules]- even the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service Company, supported the rules. It was kind of, maybe not quite kumbaya, but definitely a bipartisan moment that we were going forward with supporting clean energy. And then, seemingly out of nowhere the Arizona legislature, the chairs of the natural resources committees in both houses of the legislature introduced bills to take away the authority of the Arizona Corporation Commission to pass this clean energy standard. It’s very clearly aimed at that standard because it has a retroactive date to a [state] Supreme Court decision that was really based on another matter but said in the decision that the legislature had some authority in this area as well as the [Arizona] Corporation Commission. 

TCW: Why is this happening?

Engel: I’m not sure we entirely know. My best guess is there were certainly some interests that were opposed to what the Corporation Commission was doing and I can only guess. This is unfortunately a dynamic that does happen here in Arizona. We’ve seen it before. They lose in one branch of government and they run to another branch of government in order [to enact changes]. That’s the only thing we can really see.

It was a very interesting committee hearing [on Jan. 27]. We had almost five hours on this in the Senate. The day before we had a several hour hearing in the house. While the [Arizona Corporation] Commission did - on a divided vote - sign in to appear neutral before the legislature, we had a commissioner who was in favor of the rules and a commissioner who was against the rules testify in committee. 

If anyone would have time to listen to the hearing, it was kind of incredible [to hear] the testimony in terms of how good a thing this was for our state. Both in terms of jobs, in terms of investment in clean energy. I mean, Arizona is the sunniest place in the universe. Former Governor [Janet] Napolitano said we could be the Persian Gulf of solar if we wanted to. So to have this legislature jumping in really to undermine and just create a lot of uncertainty for investors in our state - as well as for people like myself, who would really like to see us addressing climate change - has been a terrific disappointment. So we are working hard to oppose it. 

TCW: Let’s talk about that opposition because I think for people both inside Arizona and outside Arizona, they are going to wonder what the balance of power is in the state legislature. In your assessment, do Republicans have the votes to actually stop this standard?

Engel: We don’t know yet. And that’s a great question. I think that will be the deciding factor. We really did try to demonstrate and show how harmful this would be by showing the benefits of the 2006 standard. A series has done a net benefit analysis of the billions of dollars of net benefits we’ve had in terms of lower health care costs, in terms of jobs, in terms of infrastructure being built, and so it’s really been a net gain for Arizona. And now there’s a report by Strategen, the market research [group], that finds that the new standard, once it goes through and actually becomes a final rule, will also have billions of dollars in net benefits for Arizona. So we’re trying to get that information out. As you may know, both the House and the Senate here in Arizona are very closely divided. There is just a one member majority in both houses. So I’m hoping colleagues across the aisle really pay attention to this debate and see what an incredible opportunity we’d be missing if we passed a bill like this. 

TCW: One of the reasons I’m paying such close attention and I think a lot of people around the country will pay close attention to this is because Arizona is a swing state - what happens to a renewable energy standard in Arizona could foretell what happens to a renewable energy standard in other states which have not adopted a standard yet. What do you think is the bigger picture here?

Engel: I think you put your finger on it. Arizona really is a bellwether state. It did vote for Biden. Biden has shown the importance of acting on climate change by getting us back into the Paris Accords and having a real clean energy emphasis. We also now have two of our senators that are Democrats. Yet, down ballot, we still have a majority for the Republicans [in Arizona’s state legislature]. I think it will be a kind of meeting of these issues of will the things that are convincing people to vote for Biden, to vote for [Senators] Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, who have made climate and clean investments important, will that message also ring true for the state legislature and some of these down ballot, more local interests? I think that’s really important as well as the viability of renewable energy standards and efficiency standards, which we’ve seen bring so many benefits across the country. If we can’t make the argument here, I’m concerned about our ability to make it other places because it has been such a win-win situation here.

TCW: So what happens now?

Engel: Well, unfortunately it did pass out [of committee] on party lines in both the House and the Senate and the next formal step would be to be heard before the entire body in both the House and the Senate and if it passed, it would go to the governor. I’m hoping our business leaders, many of whom have registered their opposition and many of whom I know are having conversations behind closed doors, really step up and show it is not the future of Arizona to undo these kinds of investments and to say no. So I’m hoping that they make sure that maybe the bill doesn’t come up for a vote. That would be nice. We will see though.

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For the full interview, watch the video below…