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Arizona Republican outdoes California with 'conservative' clean energy plan

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Earlier this month, Andy Tobin, a utility regulator as a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, released a plan to have 80 percent of Arizona's electricity come from clean energy sources &mdash; including solar, wind, biomass, and nuclear power &mdash; by 2050. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In sun-soaked Arizona, away from the climate-friendly coasts, a utility regulator and former Republican state lawmaker has proposed one of the most ambitious targets in the country to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

Andy Tobin, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, this month released a plan to have 80 percent of Arizona’s electricity come from clean energy sources, including solar, wind, biomass, and nuclear power, by 2050.

Tobin’s plan also calls for 3 gigawatts, or 3,000 megawatts, of energy storage by 2030, which would be the largest energy-storage mandate in the country.

The clean energy and storage targets are both more aggressive than plans in blue states California and New York.

As Tobin sells his plan, which he will turn into a formal rule that must be approved by a majority of Arizona's five elected utility commission members, he uses rhetoric that he hopes the people of his red state can understand.

“You know, I am a former speaker of the Arizona House,” Tobin told the Washington Examiner. “You don't get there unless you are a conservative. I don't consider this anything more than a continuation of making good business decisions.”

Using industry-friendly terms, Tobin refers to his proposal as the “Energy Modernization Plan,” even if he is clear about his goal and what’s driving it.

“Nobody likes to hear 'mandate,'” Tobin said. “Maybe this is different because I am not claiming it’s about climate change. But with the concerns we are facing ... our forest fires have been worse, our summers have been hotter, we are amidst a drought. We need some economic sense.”

Tobin says his proposal aims to capitalize on present market forces. Coal is on the way out.

Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal plant in the West, is scheduled to close in December 2019, even as the Trump administration tries to save it.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Tobin said. “Most coal will be gone here by 2050. I am tired of paying for abandonment, which clearly will happen with the Navajo Generating Station. This is a creative plan to make sure we are not charging consumers for plants we aren't going to need.”

No new nuclear plants are planned in Arizona, mainly because such facilities are expensive to build, Tobin says. He views nuclear as important, though, and considers it a clean energy source that can be used to meet the state’s target. Arizona has one existing nuclear plant, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

Solar power, meanwhile, is increasing in Arizona, a state with abundant sunlight.

As of December, Arizona had 3,336 megawatts of installed solar capacity, according the Solar Energy Industries Association, the third highest among states. One megawatt can power 100 to 1,000 homes depending on demand.

About 7 percent of the state’s power comes from solar.

Tobin hopes to increase solar’s impact by mitigating its most persistent problem: how to use it when the sun isn't shining.

That’s where energy storage comes in. A battery or other energy storage resource carries excess energy that can be used when the sun sets and demand peaks later in the day.

The solar and battery combination is already winning big in Arizona.

Recently, First Solar Inc., a panel maker, won a contract to supply the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, when electricity demand peaks.

First Solar proposed building a 65-megawatt solar farm that will power a 50-megawatt battery system.

Arizona Public Service supports Tobin’s energy plan, which could encourage more renewable projects by imposing a “clean peak target,” in which utilities would have to increase the amount of renewable energy they use when demand is highest.

“Commissioner Tobin has set forth a bold, challenging vision for Arizona’s energy future,” Arizona Public Service said. “We share his goal of continuing Arizona’s leadership in clean energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, and other elements of a smart energy infrastructure.”

Tobin concedes his plan likely would raise costs for utility users in the short-term, but he says he's thinking bigger.

“This plan won't be inexpensive, but it will save in the long run,” Tobin said. “This is a part of the Arizona mantra and history. Let's be creative. Let’s be the first in mind. Let's be the ones who plan well together.”