Solar panels

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation Friday to protect utilities from having to generate more of the power sold to their Arizona customers from renewable sources.

Various groups with environmental interests had sent a letter urging Ducey to veto the bill.

“Arizona has a unique natural resource as America’s sunniest state, but we still get less than 6 percent of our energy from solar power,” said the groups, including the Sierra Club, Progress Arizona Now and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Utilities face a mandate from the Arizona Corporation Commission to have 15 percent of power from wind, solar, geothermal and other similar sources by 2025.

A ballot initiative being promoted by NextGen America would boost the requirement to 50 percent by 2030. It would also preclude utilities from counting nuclear power as “renewable.”

“If Arizonans want to take control of their energy future and the quality of the air and water we leave our children and grandchildren, we should be trusted to do so,” the environmental groups wrote.

It took Ducey less than 24 hours to side with his fellow Republicans, who control the House and Senate, to approve the legislation crafted by Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric utility, and backed by Tucson Electric Power Co., UniSource Energy Services, the Salt River Project and the Grand Canyon State Electrical Coop Association.

Strictly speaking, what Ducey signed Friday would not overrule the proposed constitutional amendment in the initiative, which would direct the Corporation Commission to enact rules with a new energy mandate.

But the law, which takes effect later this year — before the initiative can get on the ballot — spells out that the “exclusive remedy” for violating any constitutional provision dealing with how electricity must be generated is a fine that could be as much as $5,000 or as little as $100.

During legislative debate, Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr told lawmakers it’s clear why the utilities want this measure: They’re looking for an escape clause if voters approve the measure.

“Everyone knows that if the cost of noncompliance is cheaper than the cost of compliance, entities will serve their shareholders, not consumers, and take the low road and pay the fines,” she said.

But APS lobbyist Rod Ross told lawmakers the initiative would raise energy costs, a point gubernatorial spokesman Daniel Scarpinato highlighted Friday.

“Gov. Ducey’s goal is to protect Arizonans from skyrocketing electric bills,” Scarpinato said.

He said the governor does support increased used of alternate energy sources — but only “in a way that is manageable and doesn’t hurt middle-class families.”

Friday’s action is unlikely the last word, with a court challenge expected. The Senate’s own legal counsel told lawmakers the legislation is unconstitutional, because the Legislature lacks authority over the Corporation Commission, which is constitutionally created. That did not stop them from approving the plan.

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who sponsored the measure, argued that it is the responsibility of lawmakers to protect Arizona residents from out-of-state interests.

That refers to the fact that the ballot measure is being financed largely through NextGen America, a political advocacy group set up by California billionaire Tom Steyer.

Initiative organizers have until July 5 to gather 225,953 valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said he feared proponents of the initiative would wage a campaign “based on deception and innuendo.”

But Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, chided colleagues for putting these protections for utility companies into law even before voters have a chance to decide if they want the new renewable standards.

“Before the voters even have that chance we already have the utilities saying, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter, we’re going to violate it whether you pass it or not,’” she said. “It really seems to make a mockery of our citizens initiative process.”