Mapstead: not all solar is created equal

Arizona’s solar energy future is at stake as the Arizona Corporation Commission decides the value of solar at a hearing Dec. 19 and 20.

Jim Mapstead

The Commission is weighing whether to value rooftop solar, consumer-driven solar that saves Arizonans money by reducing their electricity bills, the same as utility scale solar, fields of solar panels installed in the desert by utilities.

As a business owner and former candidate for Phoenix City Council, I have always believed in putting people before well-heeled special interests. That debate is front and center at the Corporation Commission as members consider the differences between these two types of solar.

Will Commissioners recognize the benefits of producing power where it is needed, or reinforce the power of utilities like monopolistic APS?

First, a little background. Utility scale solar involves large scale solar arrays often hundreds of miles away from homes. The power is transported via costly high voltage transmission lines such as the $2 billion SunZia transmission line project currently under debate in Arizona and New Mexico. Additionally, utility scale solar typically loses about 12 percent of the energy production in transport. And perhaps most importantly, utility scale solar is owned or controlled by utilities, utilities that profit from building more transmission lines.

Rooftop solar, conversely, is generated right where the energy is needed, on the roofs of homes, businesses, schools, and churches across Arizona. Any excess power a rooftop solar customer generates is sent back to the grid and powers a neighboring home or business.

Rooftop solar doesn’t utilize costly transmission lines, and utilizes only a small portion of the distribution network to export excess energy production. Because it’s consumer driven, rooftop solar lessens the need for excessive capital expenditures for things such as new power generating facilities, infrastructure, and other grid expenses. It also reduces the scale of massive capital outlays for power plants. And, while both rooftop solar and utility scale solar provide environmental benefits, rooftop solar makes use of private investment.

Rooftop solar also adds to system reliability. Since rooftop solar panels are spread out all over the state, the impacts of passing clouds on energy production are mitigated.

Rooftop solar puts the consumer in charge, not utility companies. The current proposal before the Arizona Corporation Commission does not acknowledge the real cost savings that rooftop solar provide. Asserting that rooftop solar and utility scale solar should be valued the same is like saying raw wheat and Honey Nut Cheerios are worth the same. One is a wholesale product that requires production; the other is a retail product ready for consumption.

Rooftop solar puts the consumer in charge, not utility companies, and offers an alternative choice for consumers, which most Arizonans, conservative, moderate or liberal, support.

This should be a no-brainer for a Commission that is supposed to be looking out for the public interest.  The Commission should welcome investment by Arizona citizens to provide for their own energy needs by fairly valuing the excess energy these citizens share with their neighbors.  To do so, the Commission must consider the special benefits of rooftop solar and acknowledge that all solar is not created equal.

Editor’s note: Mr. Mapstead is a Phoenix business owner and former candidate for Phoenix City Council

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