Solar Dilemma: How is Arizona Navigating the Sun?
The desert sun leaves no one unscathed by its rays, soaking the environment with power and parching its thirst. Building a sustainable city in the desert can be tough, but harnessing an abundant renewable energy resource like the sun is a perfect way to start.
Arizona boasts over 300 days of sunshine every year and the state is proud to be at the forefront of both the research and generation of solar energy. However, the relationship between energy companies, solar energy providers, and individual solar consumers is strained due to complications through policy, price, and a power grid wrought with problems.
According to Pew Research Center Fact Tank, nine out of 10 adults in the U.S. favor expanding solar power. People all over the country understand that solar power is a viable source of renewable energy which can increase the sustainability of any community willing to harness it.
Still, roadblocks hinder growth even with the overwhelmingly favorable public outlook. Policy issues, big energy companies, and individual consumer costs affect just how much solar power can be utilized. The benefits of this renewable energy source do not always favor all parties involved.
Larger energy corporations, like Arizona Public Service, have concerns over billing and purchasing excess solar power from individual solar panel owners at retail value, sparking debate over governmental incentives and net metering.
Net metering is a billing practice that credits solar panel owners for the excess energy their panels add to the power grid. Yes, this means money back in their pockets.
APS favors buying renewable energy from bigger solar projects, creating a rift between them and individual solar panel providers. This does, however, favor larger developments such as the new Kayenta Solar Facility. Located on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, this new facility is promising for both researchers and developers.
Dr. Mike Pasqualetti, a Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, says that “right now has been the right time for solar.”
Researchers at ASU and all over the country have been working on new technologies in the solar field for the last 50 years. Only in the last five have there been major strides in technology and public approval.
The abundance of sunlight in the state of Arizona has made it easy for ASU to be at the forefront of these new technologies and developments, but it is not all sunny.
“You can have all your ducks in a row with technology and never get anywhere with solar, if you don’t have policy completely understood,” Pasqualetti said, after discussing the triumphs of modern solar technology.
Policy issues have plagued the forward movement of solar projects both big and small, but consumers considering installation of solar panels face the highest costs. Lack of incentives from utility companies make it clear that corporations are controlling the power, and might not be quite ready for a change.
Individual Net-Metering and Larger Development Viability
According to Environment America, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, over 327,000 homes are powered by 2,303 megawatts of power generated from solar farms across Arizona. A megawatt serves as the unit of measure for the output of a power station. One megawatt powers about 142 homes in Arizona.
The Arizona Corporate Commission enacted the Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff in 2006, which states that regulated electric utilities must generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025. Utility companies in Arizona are required to file annual plans which map out their commitment and implementation of these rules.
In 2014, the debate about Net Metering pitted large utility companies against individual solar installers. Consumers who bought individual solar panels from companies like Solar City received a subsidy as incentive for purchasing. The subsidy was metered by the amount of excess energy produced by the solar panel, which was then sold to APS at retail value.
This transaction amounted to five dollars a month per household. With with more than 50,000 APS customers buying solar panels due to the incentive, APS had to pass the cost onto its other consumers, according to azcentral.com.
APS’ main argument was that the subsidy earned by those with solar panels was actually being paid for by those who had not yet installed solar panels. APS would rather pay wholesale for energy, as opposed to retail due to the lower cost. APS ultimately won this battle as Net-Metering did not pass the vote last year.
“In Arizona there were credits from the utility companies… but they’re all gone now,” Pasqualetti said.
When asked about incentives for average consumers, Pasqualetti remarked that other tax credits were still in place. He said this illustrates the reluctance of the utility companies to encourage the individual consumer purchase of solar panels.
This is quite a complicated path for individually-metered solar energy. Incentives need to be present to encourage people to buy solar panels, but since APS has so much control over the utility market, those incentive have to benefit them too.
Pasqualetti, in the spirit of giving advice to the average consumer, said that investing in solar is a “sure thing.”
“It’s like putting money in the bank, in fact… it is better than putting money in the bank,” he said.
“Utility companies know this, so they’re going to do everything they can to slow things down,” Pasqualetti said.
Incentives for renewable energy are important so that eventually everyone can afford to install solar panels on their homes. However, costs need to be effective for both the consumer and utility companies. Most of the struggle lies with individually metering solar panels. Corporate utilities are not ready to make the change.
“I think solar energy got here ten years before they expected it to,” Pasqualetti said. “They can’t stop it. Solar is going to happen.”
Retailers, corporate utilities, and the Arizona Corporation Committee need to find a way to give the average consumer incentive to buy into solar. Until then, more viable options for renewable energy in Arizona are solar farms and new community developments built specifically with solar in mind.
Future Developments and International Comparisons
Larger projects for solar energy facilities and solar housing developments generally receive less push back from both consumers and utility companies. Consumers would buy homes with solar panels already installed, and the power would be stored in a central location for use by that specific community.
Sonnen, a German engineering company, is partnering with Mandalay Homes to build a community of 2,900 residential homes in Prescott, Arizona. The community, nicknamed “Jasper,” uses solar energy exclusively. The company is expecting to break ground on the project in the Summer of 2018, according to Geoff Farrell who is Mandalay Homes Chief Technology Officer.
Every home will have solar panels and a Sonnen Battery which will make energy storage possible. All costs will be fixed into the home price. But according to usnews.com, the solar cost alone is estimated to be around $20,000 per house.
This price of solar development is an investment to which Pasqualetti reiterated “if I was to power my whole house over a period of 20 years, I’d save 15 to 20 thousand dollars.”
The Jasper community will be the first of its kind in the United States. The solar energy that is produced throughout the day will be sent to a central “power plant,” which will then produce power for the entire community, according to fastcompany.com.
The end goal is that the community will produce enough daily energy so that utility companies like APS will likely be paying the homeowners to use their excess energy.
The collaborating companies believe that if Jasper is a success, it will lay the blueprint for how we can continue to progress with solar and other renewable energies in the United States.
Progressing the use of solar energy in the United States is often inhibited by the process of solar energy. There are multiple stages the energy must travel through before it arrives at consumer’s homes. The size and structure of the American power grid, which consists of 66 different authorities according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, makes the creation of a solar grid community difficult.
Other countries, such as Germany, have a more cohesive infrastructure which has allowed them to set the standard on building these sustainable communities.
The entirety of Germany is one power grid. Sonnen uses this structure to create solar energy systems, which are then used to cut out the middle-man and shorten the process of developing solar energy. This makes Germany the number one producer of solar energy in the world according to businessinsider.com.
“Germany has thousands and thousands of megawatts of solar installed… and we don’t,” Pasqualetti says.
Germany has about one third of the amount of sunlight that Arizona receives. The country is able to achieve its renewable energy goal because they have policies which encourage the development of solar and other sustainable energy measures.
Sonnen engineers its technology in Germany, but manufactures in the United States; the company’s innovative ideas are changing the way the world uses and implements solar technology.
The Future of Solar
The last few years have shown remarkable development for solar power in Arizona. Innovations such as the Jasper community, as well as the strong debate over net metering, prove that people are thinking about solar energy and its potential for growth.
Having worked in the electric and natural gas utility business for over 45 years, Glenn Steiger is focused on expanding renewable energy throughout Arizona.
Steiger is the Executive Consultant for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Like Pasqualetti, Steiger views the initial costs for solar energy as an investment for both business and individual consumers.
The Kayenta Solar Facility is Steiger’s newest project. Built on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, the solar plant boasts a completely automated system which is maintained by only one person.
According to Steiger, the facility provides additional renewable power to utility companies like the Salt River Project and APS. The most notable fact, however, is that the facility is powering a few thousand residential homes on the Navajo Nation.
SRP works with the new facility to get a small percentage of their power from this solar grid, which allows them to be in compliance with the corporate commission’s goal to obtain 15 percent of power from renewable sources.
More and more states are enacting goals to expand renewable energy and are making corporate utilities abide by them.
“Solar energy is one of the cutting-edge technologies today… it will only get better and more efficient,” Steiger said.
Steiger continued to discuss his goal of ushering solar energy into the future.
“There will be significant amount of solar energy produced in the west over the course of the next 10 to 20 years,” Steiger said.
“The catalyst will be the use of new solar storage technologies,” he added.
When asked where his passion for solar came from, Steiger responded that he simply cares about the environment.
“Solar energy is clean, and we’re going to clean up the atmosphere and we’re going to make the planet habitable for a long long time. That’s what I like about it.”
- Environment America
- Green Tech Media
- Business Insider
- Fast Company
- US News
- Pew Research
- AZ Central
Photo: @liveoutdoor.s by Brady Knoll