PHOENIX - The outcome of next month's race for the Arizona Corporation Commission will determine how much more solar and other renewable energy electric utility consumers will have to buy.
Both the Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers alike, say they support the current mandate for all investor-owned utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. And there are no calls from the contenders to repeal the current surcharges that utilities can charge customers to promote those sources.
But the three Republicans made it quite clear during an hourlong televised debate on KAET-TV Monday night that they have no interest in raising that figure, not now - and perhaps not ever. They argued that while renewable energy is a nice goal, the cost to current customers makes it prohibitive.
"The economy is the critical issue here," said former state Senate President Bob Burns, hoping to gain one of the three seats up for election this year on the commission. The commission is responsible for electric, gas, water, phone and sewer rates for private utilities.
"Rates are affected by an increase in (the mandate)," he continued. "In the current economic condition we are in, that increase in rates, I believe, would be very harmful to the overall economy of the state of Arizona."
That's also the contention of fellow Republican Susan Bitter Smith, also hoping to become a commissioner.
"The key to all this discussion is what it costs consumers," she said. Bitter Smith said it's one thing to leave the current goal in place, but "it's not a great economy right now to juggle with a formula that's already working."
But incumbent Democrat Sandra Kennedy, seeking a second term, said the GOP challengers as well as Republican incumbent Bob Stump, also seeking re-election, are wrong. Kennedy said increasing solar energy requirements actually will boost the state's economy.
And Paul Newman, the other Democrat up for re-election, said the Republicans are out of step with what Arizonans want.
He cited a study done last year by the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, commissioned by Arizona Public Service, which said 94 percent of APS customers support increasing the use of solar energy. More to the point, Newman said, they are willing to pay more than the several dollars a month utilities already can add to customer bills to subsidize solar installations.
Part of the issue surrounds what the commission will consider "renewable" to meet the standard.
When rules were adopted, the list included things like solar, wind, geo-thermal and biomass. But last year the commission, which has a 3-2 Republican majority right now, agreed to let Mohave Electric Cooperative count burning trash to meet its goals.
Stump defended the move, saying the federal Environmental Protection Agency classifies burning waste as renewable energy.
But Democratic challenger Marcia Busching said that definition does not include unsorted trash but was meant for burning biomass, things like small twigs and plants.
"When you put just garbage, rubber, plastics and things like that into a trash-burning facility, in an incinerator, it is no longer 'renewable,' " she said.
Then there's the question of the future of nuclear power in Arizona. Burns said that has to be part of the mix because of the limits of solar.
"What do we do when the sun no longer shines" at night? he asked. "We need a base of power, a base of energy, and nuclear fits part of that particular components."
The idea did not sit well with Daniel Pout, one of two Green Party candidates.
"Why don't we ask the citizens of Japan?" he said, saying that country is phasing out nuclear power in the wake of the meltdown at one of its reactors.
"There's nothing renewable about nuclear power," added Thomas Meadows, the other Green Party contender. "It creates more environmental issues than it helps."
Bitter Smith also said the state has to rely on other sources of energy, including "clean coal."
"There's no such thing as 'clean coal,' " Meadows countered.
Also running for one of the seats is Libertarian Christopher Gohl. Asked why he should be elected, Gohl said in part, "I will not allow a transfer of wealth from the upper-middle class to corporations."
The candidates' positions on all major issues in the Arizona Corporation Commission race.