Much has been made in recent weeks of the stark political controversies that haunt Arizona politics. There, intense debates over immigration, over healthcare, over a host of issues, have led to a growing sense that Arizona’s politics have left the mainstream behind.
But there is another Arizona, an Arizona of bipartisan unanimity and progress hidden beneath the saddening headlines of late. That hidden story of Arizona reveals a state that is leading the country down the new and much-needed road to energy efficiency, with standards that are among the most ambitious in the nation. It is a story that has been lost. But it is a story that Arizonans of all political stripes deserved to be celebrated for and a story the rest of us need to hear.
First, though, let me speak a little about Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who has been a champion of clean energy throughout her career and a strong supporter of environmental issues in general. How many members of Congress have their own solar power blogs and lifetime League of Conservation Voters ratings of 91 percent? Giffords does. (Here’s the blog and her YouTube video extolling solar power's promise.)
“If she’s not the most accessible member of Congress on solar, she’s one of them,” notes Sara Chieffo, LCV’s Deputy Legislative Director.
By now, we’ve all now learned about the Congresswoman’s warmth and her ability to bring together people with disparate beliefs. It’s fitting, then, that her 2009 Solar Technology Roadmap Act, which would have dedicated $2 billion to new solar power research partnerships and demonstration projects, received endorsements from both the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National Association of Manufacturing, two groups whose positions are often at odds. (Though the legislation never received a reading in the Senate, it passed the House easily, 310 to 106.)
This ability to bringing together people and groups whose allegiances and beliefs often diverge sharply may well be a more common trait in the Copper State than we outsiders have been led to believe.
At the very end of last year, the bipartisan Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates most of the state’s utilities, finalized some of the nation’s most forward-thinking energy-efficiency rules. While maintaining their high levels of service, utilities in Arizona will cut their electricity production, and the pollution it creates, by 22 percent by the year 2020; natural gas usage will drop by 6 percent.
In the process, these new regulations will save Arizona ratepayers an estimated $9 billion by 2030, according to the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The regulations will also reduce the state’s global warming pollution output significantly. This is pollution that is already disrupting our fragile atmosphere. It’s causing respiratory and heart problems that cost tens of thousands of lives annually in the US and cost our economy more than $100 billion a year.
In this age of sometimes extreme political polarization across the country, the three Republicans and two Democrats on the state’s utility-regulating commission came together to support these Arizona regulations unanimously. Explains outgoing Republican chairperson Kris Mayes: “We all saw the value of energy efficiency across the board, from the economics to the environment.” The new energy efficiency rules, she says, will “save Arizonans $9 billion by 2030. As regulators, it would be crazy to walk away from those kinds of savings.”
Now, Mayes hopes the Arizona Corporation Commission’s process and its new regulations can serve as a model of bipartisanship that can move the nation towards a better day. “I’m not going to say every state commission has the obligation to set a 22 percent [energy-efficiency] standard. That might not make sense,” she says. “But I do think every regulator in America has an obligation to maximize energy efficiency and I hope every state will consider what is possible when they look to Arizona.”