I learned a great fact about Arizona recently when I was in Phoenix for the Arizona Solar Summit. The state’s economic priority list has historically revolved around what are known as the “Five C’s”: Copper, Cattle, Cotton, Citrus, and Climate.

Just about anyone who’s a native Arizonan can recite the list from memory because it’s taught to everyone in grade school. It’s a simple way to communicate the idea that the state’s interests are closely tied to a set of natural resources and products.  Those resources have been key drivers in the creation of local jobs and economic development for the state. 

One of my takeaways from the Summit was that it’s time to add a Sixth C to Arizona’s priority list: Clean Energy. Because if there’s one natural resource Arizona has more of than other state, it’s sunshine!  Check out the insolation map of the U.S. from NREL below that really drives the point home. 

Map_pv_national_lo-res

Summit participants—policymakers, educators, regulators, and solar industry representatives from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas—repeatedly made the point that Arizona’s future has always been closely aligned with developing it’s natural resources. So it would seem to be a natural conclusion that Arizona would be doing everything possible to develop and export the buckets of sunshine it receives every day.

For a while, it seemed like Arizona’s leaders got it. The Arizona Corporate Commission (ACC) put in place a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) that required the states’ public utilities to reach 15% renewable energy levels by 2025. The RES stimulated developers and utilities to create a bunch of new projects in the state. My company, Recurrent Energy, developed a 100MW pipeline of projects in the state—23MW of which is now operating with an additional 20MW contracted to come online in 2013.

But in the last year or so the state seems to be reversing course and heading in the complete opposite direction. First there was the odd attempt at the legislature in 2010 to include nuclear in the RES, effectively enabling the utilities to meet renewable goals with existing nuclear power! The bill failed eventually. Next the ACC decided to eliminate the option for utilities to contract with independent power producers to develop solar projects. Instead, they limited them to work only with rooftop solar projects and utility-owned generation (which effectively killed 60MW of our pipeline and many MWs for other developers who were similarly committed to the state).

Finally in recent months the legislature has taken the oddest step yet, proposing a bill that would stop the RES in its tracks by capping renewable energy targets at their current levels. Despite the fact that Arizona’s Legislative Counsel believes the bill is unconstitutional, it has been advancing steadily through the legislature and seems destined for Governor Brewer’s desk. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and the Governor will veto the bill and get the state back on track to developing its solar resources.

A Road Map for Developing Arizona’s Sixth C

Despite the confusion in the capitol, Summit participants showed a remarkable amount of agreement about what it would take to develop Arizona’s solar resource and make the state “a leader in the technology and business of generating energy from the sun.” What came out of the discussions were three key steps the state could focus on:

  • Develop Arizona’s domestic market for solar power—this is mostly a question of getting the RES back on track and allowing utilities more flexibility in how they procure renewable energy.
  • Grow Arizona into the nation’s leading exporter of solar power to other Western states—this will take some more time as it requires new interstate transmission lines to be built which is costly and time consuming; plus, states like California that are the biggest potential buyers are focused on developing their own domestic markets first.
  • Create a leading solar technology and business cluster in Arizona—the seeds have already been planted via ASU’s LightWorks and SkySong programs, plus the support Greater Phoenix Economic Council (and let’s not forget that one of the world’s largest solar company’s, FirstSolar, is headquarted in Tempe, Arizona).

Hopefully the next event coming up in Arizona, Greentech Media’s SolarSummit 2012 (May 1-2) will shed some more light on how Arizona can take meaningful steps forward towards these goals.