AZ Clean Energy Constitutional Amendment Would Shut Down Nuclear Power in State

Published May 17, 2018

California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer is pushing a ballot measure in Arizona to amend the state’s constitution requiring utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from favored renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, by 2030.

The Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, HCR 2017 increases the current renewable power mandate from its present requirement of 15 percent by 2025, in an attempt to reduce the carbon dioxide generated from electric power production in the state to fight climate change.

Effect on Nuclear Power

Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the owner of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (Palo Verde), warns if voters approve this constitutional amendment, its nuclear plant would have to close in six years instead of continuing to generate electricity for 27 years as its current operating license permits.

Palo Verde is the largest source of electric power in Arizona, providing 36 percent of the state’s electricity. By comparison, non-hydro renewables in Arizona, dominated by solar power, generate about 4 percent of the state’s electricity. Coal produces about 25 percent and natural gas about 30 percent of the state’s electric power.

Palo Verde just received a 20-year extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate the plant until 2045. Attempting to build sufficient renewable power to take the place Palo Verde, as well as also replacing the electricity from coal-fired power plants in the state, which will also have to be closed prematurely, will require almost 30 times the amount of electricity from renewable sources as they produce now, to be online in less than 12 years.

APS officials say under the measure solar and wind development would produce more electric power than is needed during half the year when Arizonans are not using their air conditioners, with the oversupply forcing the closure of baseload nuclear and coal-fired power plants, which provide a constant flow of electricity.

Rising Electric Costs

APS also says the cost of electricity would rise significantly if this measure passes.

Writing in Forbes, James Conca, a geologist who has worked in nuclear waste disposal and on energy issues for more than 30 years, says experience shows electric power costs will rise if this constitutional amendment passes.

“California and Germany have seen their electricity rates increase by 23 percent and by 50 percent, respectively, since they started closing nuclear plants and scaling up renewables,” writes Conca in Forbes. “New England and New York, as well.

“Various studies have shown the economic and environmental harm of closing nuclear plants early,” Conca says. “The Brattle Group just released such a study …, calculating that closing four nuclear power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania will raise gross electricity costs for customers by around $400 million for Ohio, $285 million for Pennsylvania, and $1.5 billion across the entire utility’s region.”

Conca also warns prematurely closing Palo Verde could result in the loss of as many as 5,000 jobs in Arizona, a significant source of tax revenue for the local governments and the state.

Because, being a nuclear plant, Palo Verde produces no carbon dioxide while generating electricity, closing it early means replacing 700 billion kWhs of carbon free electric power from alternative sources over the plant’s expected operating life. Yet the alternative sources, either in their construction or operation, and will produce carbon dioxide.

Conca’s Forbes article says Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress, argues replacing nuclear power with natural gas and solar actually increases carbon dioxide emissions.

“It’s hard to say which is more outrageous: that billionaire renewable energy investor Tom Steyer is trying to replace Arizona’s largest source of clean energy with a mix of natural gas and solar, or that he’s doing it in the name of climate change,” Conca quotes Shellenberger as saying. “Whatever the case, anyone who is concerned about air pollution, global warming, or simply maintaining cheap and reliable electricity for Arizona should denounce Steyer’s initiative and demand he withdraw it from the ballot.”

Preemptive Legislative Action

Even before Steyer’s campaign has submitted the signatures required to get the initiative on the ballot, Republicans in the legislature are working against it.

In late March, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a bill that would slash penalties for utilities failing to comply with the renewable energy standard. The bill reduces the associated fine to as little as $100, capping the penalty at no more than $5,000.

State Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), one of the bill’s sponsors, told Inside Climate News he is opposed to requiring 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, and proposed the bill in response to the activists’ proposed ballot initiative.

“There’s a great deal of concern that a voters’ initiative being funded by an out-of-state wealthy person could impose an unrealistically high renewable energy mandate in Arizona, which would dramatically increase homeowner utility bills,” Kavanagh told Inside Climate News.

Because the Senate’s legal counsel advised the bill was unconstitutional and would likely prompt lawsuits to overturn it, in late March a senate committee passed a separate bill which would add a second ballot initiative with a nearly identical title to the November ballot. Although the second initiative would have similar language and set the same goal for renewable energy it would also contain a “safety valve” forbidding the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, from implementing the standard if it would increase electricity bills, hurt reliability or have an adverse impact on “the well-being of this state.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

Official Connections:

State Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills):; [email protected]