Voters will have to choose candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission with vastly different opinions on how to reach a critical balance in curating the state’s energy policy while protecting Arizonans’ health.
Candidates for the ACC differ greatly on what they say should be the role that the commission takes in curating Arizona’s energy policy, including if regulations and mandates are a government overreach or necessary to secure a healthy future for residents. Some of the candidates oppose such rules, saying they drive up utility costs for Arizonans.
Republicans currently hold a 3-2 advantage on the commission with two positions up for election this year. Candidates include three Republicans and two Democrats.
The primary election will be held on August 2. Given that the top two candidates from each party’s primary will advance to the general election in November, it is a virtual certainty that both Democrats will make it, while only two of the three Republicans will move forward to the general election. The top two candidates who then get the highest vote total in the general election will join the commission.
On the team of Democrats is incumbent Sandra Kennedy, who was first elected to the commission in 2008 and then later in 2018. She is the first African American candidate in Arizona to win a statewide office. Kennedy was first elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1986, where she served for six years, and then to the Arizona State Senate in 1992, where she served for another six.
Kennedy is running on a platform she described as “beholden to the people, not utility monopolies or special interests.” She said she wants to fight corruption and increase the transparency of the commission.
Kennedy said she believes that creating Arizona’s energy policy lies strongly within the power of the Corporation Commission, calling it the “4th branch of government.” She also touts a record of opposing what she considered unjust rate increases, which she said she can do by proposing amendments to lower the rate of return so that companies can “profit, but not gouge, the ratepayers.”
“We are a regulated entity; we should be regulated. And I am a very loud voice at the commission, I don’t bite my tongue,” Kennedy said. “And I have been very vocal that I am not a friend of the utilities. I was elected by the people of this state to represent them. And I intend to do just that.”
Kennedy is joined by Democrat Lauren Kuby, who is finishing her second term on the Tempe City Council. Kuby also serves as senior global futures scientist at Arizona State University’s Global Futures Laboratory and she manages the Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and Family. Kuby and Kennedy say the commission should exercise its power to instill mandates that will fight climate change.
“We are in a crisis in Arizona, a climate crisis, whether you look at their frequency, and wildfires or extreme heat, that mega-drought, the worst drought in 1,200 years, when you look at the air quality and water quality,” Kuby said. “But I also think there’s an opportunity to really take the lead. We can lead the country in this transition to clean energy.”
Kuby stated on her website that she believes in the competition of “new regulated companies into the market” that are committed to offering clean energy. She added that the commission exists to serve consumers.
“I would rename it the Arizona Consumer Commission,” Kuby said.
The three Republicans vying for spots on the Corporation Commission include the team of Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson. Myers is a small business owner and former software engineer, who served as a policy adviser for outgoing Commissioner Juston Olson, who is running for the U.S. Senate in the GOP primary. Thompson and Myers have stated their opposition to mandates and commitment to maintaining low rates.
“Mandates are what is artificially driving up rates,” Myers said. “You know, if they have to go out and invest in the land and solar panels, or wind turbines or whatever, they’re going to be paying for that. And if the technology isn’t ready, if they’re going to be paying a premium for it, and that all gets rolled back into rates.”
Thompson also is a small business owner, who is serving his last term on Mesa’s City Council. He is a former Air Force combat veteran, who served as chairman of the National League of Cities’ Economic Development Committee and on the American Gas Association’s public policy committee.
Thompson also worked for Southwest Gas Holdings, Inc., in a position which he was fired from in 2014. He later sued the company, claiming he was discriminated against because of his age. The case was dismissed.
Thompson and Myers say they strongly believe the powers of the Corporation Commission should be limited to that of an advisory body.
“You have five commissioners, so you only really need three for a majority,” Thompson said. “And my feeling is that three people shouldn’t be making energy policy for the entire state of Arizona. I think it’s time to put the policymaking into the Legislature so that the rural communities have a voice and so 90 individuals can openly debate.”
Running independently as a Republican is Kim Owens, who currently serves as a commissioner on the Arizona Power Authority. Before that, she served three terms on the Salt River Project Council and 20 years on the Tolleson Union High School District Governing Board.
Like Thompson and Myers, Owens said that she generally supports limiting the powers of the Corporation Commission. Owens is the only candidate of all five who has not accepted money from lobbyists. She also is the only candidate who does not support electric retail competition – a for-profit approach that allows out-of-state utilities to compete with big electric companies.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB2101 in April, which reversed an older statute that allowed retail competition in the state. Proponents of the bill argued that eliminating competition addressed reliability issues and prevented blackouts like disruptions in Texas and California. Opponents argued that eliminating competition preserved the legal monopolies of utilities in place.
It is possible that the Corporation Commission could provide retailers entry into the state by adopting separate rules on competition. But Thompson and Myers indicated that they would not interfere with the Legislature’s decision.
Although all three Republicans are against eliminating the use of fossil fuels, they did support its inclusion as part of a broad portfolio. They oppose total dependence on renewable energy, saying it is unreliable.
“Getting rid of fossil fuels immediately is wishful thinking,” Owens said. “We don’t have the means to do it, we just don’t. Looking for the best sources of power that reduce emissions or provide the public with a sense of satisfaction towards something that they may desire in terms of clean air and clean water, that’s important. But it’s also important to understand that this is public safety. If you don’t have power and water, that’s a problem.”
Kuby rejected the premise that a whole dependence on renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels. She said solar energy was the only power source that did not fail during the Texas power outage that occurred during an ice storm in February of last year.
“If you look at the Texas example, guess which energy source didn’t fail? It was solar, it was the only power source that stayed within its expected production,” Kuby said. “Gas is 43% of the electricity that we generate in Arizona. And if we’ve learned anything from the war in Ukraine, and also from Texas, it’s that we shouldn’t be relying on energy sources that fluctuate so wildly with international events and with bad weather.”
Kennedy suggested that she and Kuby would be open to exploring the possibility of providing retailers entry into the state by setting separate rules on competition, while Thompson and Myers indicated that they would not interfere with the legislature’s decision.