/ Modified oct 18, 2022 11:47 a.m.

In race for utility regulator, different visions for Arizona’s energy future

Two Republicans — Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson — and two Democrats — Sandra Kennedy and Lauren Kuby — are running for two open positions.

TEP Solar Field A solar array used by Tucson Electric Power to add renewable energy to the grid, August 2019
Christopher Conover/AZPM

Two of the five seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission are up for grabs in the current election. The commission is best known for regulating utility rates, although it also oversees railroad and pipeline safety and regulates securities in the state.

All states have what is most often called a public utility commission but Arizona’s Corporation Commission is one of only seven in the country that is constitutionally mandated and it is one of only 13 states that elects its commissioners instead of being governor-appointed. Because it is elected and not part of the executive branch, the commission is sometimes informally known as the "fourth branch of government.

Two Republicans — Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson — and two Democrats — Sandra Kennedy and Lauren Kuby — are running for two open positions.

While each of the candidates are running individually, they have chosen to pair off — identifying as two partisan packages — the Republican candidates referring to themselves as the Myers-Thompson ticket and the Democrats call themselves the Kennedy-Kuby ticket.

Both sides agree that the main job of the commission is to be an advocate for rate payers. But they disagree about the best way to do it. The Democrats believe the commission should take a more active role in setting standards for the utilities with the goal of getting to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible.

Kuby, who is the former vice mayor of Tempe and a sustainability scientist at ASU, says solar power is by far the best solution, especially in the sunniest state in the country.

"It’s the cheapest form of energy,” she said during a debate last month. “The best way to get to a 100% goal is to make sure you are as energy efficient as possible and with energy efficiency."

And she says these decisions do not happen in a vacuum. Climate change and the severe drought in Arizona means all decisions need to take environmental impact into account.

"With energy efficiency comes water conservation. Saving energy means saving water. They are indelibly connected. There's water-energy nexus we need to focus on with every decision we make on the commission,” she said.

Republic Nick Myers, a corporate engineer and small businessman, disputes that renewable power is inexpensive.

"Generating power is different from storing power and using it when you need it,” he said. “And if you look at the government website, it shows that when you add storage to renewable generation, it makes it about five times more expensive, so it is no longer the cheapest. So to make it usable, it’s not cost effective, to generate it, it is.”

Kuby believes those figures are out of date and that the current pace of growth in batteries and storage technology is catching up quickly.

"Working at the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation we see how many strides we're making with battery storage and solar collection, non-photo voltaic solar collection,” she said.

She says it will take years for the utilities to reach 100 per cent renewable energy and storage capabilities will have caught up well before then.

The two sides are also at odds over how much the commission should mandate the pace of change for the utilities. The Democrats say setting hard, but achievable goals towards renewable energy sources, especially solar are needed to make sure utilities get there as quickly as possible.

The Republicans say utilities should not be dictated to, but need the ability to make their own decisions based on the best technology available.

Republican Kevin Thompson, a Mesa city council member and an Air Force veteran, says locking utilities into mandatory standards is fraught with risk. He says there is a danger in what he called "putting all of the eggs in one basket " and getting too far out in front of the technology. He believes it’s better to take a more flexible approach.

"Where we're allowing for all types of energy, whether it's hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, natural case, coal-fired, all-of-the-above approach and allow technology to dictate when it's time to move to renewables,” he said.

But Democrat Sandra Kennedy, a former state legislator and current commissioner who is seeking re-election, says the commission needs to set a standard that the utilities can follow.

"We need to increase the standard, get it back on the books,” she said. “Even though the utilities have said we're going to do everything possible because it's in our best interest, maybe just a little nudge from the commission. Those who regulate those entities should actually sit down and tell them we'd like to hear your ideas, but here are ours, too and let's work together to create the standard that should represent Arizona and the utilities, too.”

Those elected this year will serve 4-year terms. Commissioners can serve two consecutive 4-year terms, three of the five positions come up for elections during presidential elections years, the other two during midterm elections like this year.

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