In a spate of recent rulings, Arizona's Supreme Court knocked the 'invest in ed' initiative off November's ballot, while clearing the way for a proposition to appear about the future of the state's energy sources.
Proposition 127 would amend Arizona's constitution and require energy utilities, including Tucson Electric Power, get half of their energy from renewables like wind and solar by the year 2030. That's an increase from the existing renewable energy standard, which requires 15 percent of renewable generation by 2025.
Former Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes now volunteers with Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, the group that's pushing for Prop 127. She says the current renewable energy standard, which she co-authored, was a good start.
"But we are now falling far behind our neighbors. Most of our surrounding states, states like California, Nevada, Colorado, I think New Mexico soon, are going to at least 50 percent," she said.
California lawmakers are sending a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown that would move that state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
Arizonans for Affordable Electricity are leading the charge against Prop. 127.
"We refer to this as an energy tax because it is going to tack on a significant tax every time you get that energy bill at the end of the month," said spokesperson Matthew Benson.
Ads released by the No on 127 group stress the financial burden that the measure will place on Arizonans and a report from TEP that estimates a $500 annual increase in electricity bills for Tucsonans if 127 passes.
Mayes says that claim is false.
"We know that renewable energy sources like solar and wind are coming in at record lower prices, 2.2 cents a kilowatt-hour. We see that it's actually reducing utility bills in states like Colorado and Nevada," she said.
The Natural Resources Defence Council, an environmental advocacy group, released a report recently saying the measure would save Arizonans $4.1 billion between 2020 and 2040.
"Arizonans understand there's no free lunch," said Matthew Benson. "If you're going to require utilities phase out all their base coal fire plants, close Palo Verde, which is the largest source of clean energy in the country, and then replace it with thousands and thousands of solar farms, new transmission lines, battery power ... it costs billions and billions of dollars. Those costs have to get passed along to consumers."
Mayes and Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona say Arizona Public Service, the largest electricity utility in the state and a staunch opponent of Prop. 127, plans to build 5,375 megawatts of new natural gas plants.
"They want to build fossil fuel plants. That will cost Arizonans billions of dollars and pollute our air," said Mayes. "So this ballot initiative is about a future that involves clean energy and cheaper energy. ... Or, do we want APS and TEP to go out and build thousands of megawatts of new gas plants?"
Matthew Benson said Prop. 127 would lead to the closure of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the country’s largest nuclear power plant located about 50 miles west of Phoenix. "It becomes uneconomical to operate," said Benson.
Mayes said there's nothing in the measure that would lead to the plant's closure, and APS doesn't have the authority to close the plant, which it co-owns with six other utilities across the Southwest. "That nuclear power plant is going to stay there, it's going to live out its useful life."
"It's interesting the proponents of the initiative wrote it to specifically exclude nuclear power as a clean fuel," said Benson. "The impetus for this initiative is climate change and Palo Verde is again the largest source of carbon free electricity."
Mayes said nuclear is indeed carbon free, but it is never considered a renewable source of energy. "The waste doesn't degrade for 700 years. It's zero emissions but it's not a renewable energy and we didn't include it in the original renewable energy standard."
She said the utilities' arguments against Prop. 127 are similar to complaints made in the mid-2000s against the current renewable energy standards.
"The utilities all said: 'Oh, it can't be done, commissioners. It's too expensive. Technically, it can't be done.' And of course that didn't come to pass. It turns out it wasn't too expensive, it was the right thing to do for Arizona. It's immensely popular for Arizonans," she said.
But according to Benson, this time is very different because the Prop. 127 campaign is funded by San Francisco-based billionaire Tom Steyer, a major backer of progressive candidates and measures. What's wrong with that?
"There's nothing wrong with that if you're OK with a California billionaire coming up with an initiative, spending $12-$15 billion to promote it and then not being affected by the negative effects of that," said Benson.
"I am grateful that someone is helping us to fight APS," said Mayes. "And help us fight the forces that have refused to allow us to do more renewable energy in Arizona. So, you know I don’t know where that money comes from because at the end of the day it's the right thing for Arizona."
She said APS and its parent company Pinnacle West spent millions of dollars on unsuccessful legal challenges to keep Prop. 127 off November's ballot, and are pouring money into the "no" campaign, just as they did to influence the Arizona Corporation Commission.
"And those commissioners have done what APS wanted them to do," she said. "They have stopped the progress of renewable energy and clean energy in this state. It's time for the people of Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Prescott, where I'm from, to take this issue into our own hands and decide what kind of destiny we want as a state. "
Benson said it's not fair to compare Steyer's involvement in this campaign to APS and its parent company's opposition.
"Arizona Public Service is an Arizona company. They've been here for over a century. And they're going to be here after the election to deal with the ramifications, whatever may come," said Benson.
Arizonans will decide on Prop. 127 in this November's election.