Home / Capitol Insiders / Shine a light on cooperation: State lawmakers actually work with the feds on some things, like solar power

Shine a light on cooperation: State lawmakers actually work with the feds on some things, like solar power

The view looking slightly northeast back towards the Capitol from the roof of the Polly Rosenbaum Archives Building reveals the facility’s installation of solar panels. The building’s solar array produces 50 kilowatts. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

On several policy matters like climate change and health care, Arizona often butts heads with the U.S. government.

But step outside the Capitol mall, and you’ll see a modern building with solar panels on its rooftop.

That’s the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building.

Three other state buildings also now make use of panels that convert solar radiation into electricity. Two others will soon have the same capability.

Here’s the interesting part: The photovoltaic cells that provide a portion of these state buildings’ energy requirements were installed with federal stimulus dollars.

Actually, the $2.9 million that Gov. Jan Brewer recommended to set aside for the project is only a slice of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government earmarked for Arizona’s residents, and state and local governments.

The primary aim is to improve energy systems, and the money is being used for home weatherization, retrofitting schools and even improving a city library’s lighting system.

In short, while denunciation of the federal government’s unwelcome tentacles is the central narrative of Arizona’s politicians, away from the limelight there is cooperation and sharing of resources and a mutual desire between the state and the federal government to cut down, in this case, on energy costs.

The solar panels that now adorn some state buildings are a perfect example of this political diptych — handwringing over federal intrusion on the one side and accepting that intrusion if it were minimal and if it brought money to this cash-strapped desert state.

Some consider this position to be, well, conflicted.

“You could argue that it’s inconsistent and some might even say hypocritical,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter.

Bahr said Arizona has made strides on the renewable energy front, including offering tax credits to residents for installing solar energy devices and tax breaks to qualified renewable energy companies that locate to or expand their operations here.

The Arizona Corporation Commission is also requiring public electric utilities to derive 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025. This rule is currently under litigation.

But, Arizona keeps sending inconsistent messages to the public regarding renewable energy, Bahr said.  She cited legislators’ attempts to count energy from nuclear power as “clean” and their insistence that light bulbs that are manufactured and sold here are not subject to federal regulations. The governor vetoed a light bulb bill, which was intended to check federal use of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, arguing there was a better way to challenge federal overreach.

“It’s like we take two steps forward and then somebody pushes a step back,” Bahr said.

But Sen. John McComish, a Republican from Phoenix who supported the tax credits for renewable energy companies, suggested not dwelling too much on this seeming duality of Arizona’s relationship vis-à-vis the federal government.

“I suspect that that’s probably the kind of relationship that always goes on where you’re fighting on one hand and cooperating on the other,” he said. “It’s the same thing with state and local governments. We disagree on some things and we work closely on others.”

He added: “I think it is the natural order of things.”

Inescapably, the solar panels merely highlighted the philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans and their views of the federal stimulus program.

Some fiscally conservative legislators and advocates for states’ rights said the stimulus program is a colossal waste of money and it is putting the U.S. in the debt-ceiling bind that is now threatening its fiscal health.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said she’s not opposed to the idea of putting solar devices on homes to save on electric bills.

“I’m not against the governor using that money. However, I think it would have been better if we sent the money back,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times. “It would have been more beneficial to the American people.”

But Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is working as it was designed to do — stimulating the economy in the short term.

“The solar panels are an example of actually, again, a short term and a long term stimulus,” Schapira said, adding their installation helps the economy in the short term but the energy they will keep producing will also have a more lasting impact on state finances.

Actually, many on both sides of the political aisle look favorably at renewable energy, but some Republicans balk at the idea of subsidizing renewable energy companies while Democrats view the tax breaks as a wise investment.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, emphasized he’s not anti-solar energy. He uses solar panels on his ranch.

But currently solar energy isn’t cost-effective and the industry can’t stand on its own without government subsidy, which means taxpayers are propping it up, Gould said.

The Lake Havasu City Republican said if there’s a silver lining to the stimulus program in Arizona, at least the solar panels are tangible.

“I’d rather have seen it (stimulus money) go into roadwork,” he said. “But if you’re going to piss money away, at least I have something I can go and look at the solar panels and go, ‘Oh boy, there’s some of our tax dollars at work’.”

Solar State

State buildings with solar panels installed with federal stimulus funds and energy output:
• AHCCCS Building at 701 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, 79 kw
• AHCCCS Building at 801 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, 99 kw
• Lottery Building at 4740 East University Drive, Phoenix, 69 kw
• Polly Rosenbaum Archives Building at 1901 W. Madison St., 50 kw
• Estimated annual savings: $53,000.

Under construction:
• DES West Building at 1789 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix, 80 kw

In design phase:
• former Mines & Minerals Bldg. (soon to be Centennial Museum) at 1502 W. Adams, Phoenix, 30 to 50 kw.

Source: Governor’s Office of Energy Policy

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