Arizona's Clean Air Initiative—What does it mean for agriculture?

Arizona State Solar Garden

Solar Array — at the West Campus, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Schwnj

“We harness the sun to grow our food and feed our families, but we’re wasting the sun’s potential to power our homes, schools and businesses with clean solar energy,” said Sara Vose of Arizona’s Blue Sky Farms. Vose is one of a diverse cross section of supporters of Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona (Proposition 127), which greatly expands the state’s renewable energy standard to require utilities to source 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030. Arizona’s voters will vote on Prop 127 in November.

If passed, most of the renewable energy expansion in Arizona is expected to be sourced from solar. Arizona is one of the country’s sunniest states, with an estimated 300 days of sun a year. The state already has a robust solar industry, employing more people than coal or natural gas. A Natural Resource Defense Council study found that the Prop 127 would create more than 15,000 new jobs and generate more than $2 billion in economic activity in the renewable energy sector by 2030.

The initiative defines renewable energy to include not just solar, but also wind, biomass, geothermal, certain types of hydropower and certain types of landfill gas energies. Controversial biogas derived from the methane captured from manure lagoons at large-scale dairy operations is also considered renewable under the initiative. Dairy methane digesters have been highly criticized for their cost and lack of reliability in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Although digesters do reduce methane released into the atmosphere, they don’t address the air and water pollution and public health impacts often associated with the confinement model of animal production.

If the initiative is approved, the Arizona Corporation Commission, made up of five elected members, will oversee enforcement of the new standards. Under the initiative, renewable energy credits (RECs) could be earned and traded to help utilities meet the state’s mandate. RECs are the added value given to a renewable energy source (like a wind energy generator) as it enters into the larger energy grid—Vox’s David Roberts provides a good explainer. Under Prop 127, Arizona utilities could purchase RECs from neighboring states like California only if the renewable attribute (i.e. solar or biogas energy) was bundled together with energy transmitted to Arizona. The initiative also mandates that utilities increase their use of distributed renewable energy (energy locally generated and distributed from customers’ homes or businesses or farms) to 10 percent by 2030.

The coalition of supporters for Prop 127 include the healthcare community, labor unions and small businesses. Key organizations include the Arizona Building and Construction Trade Council, Arizona Public Health Association, Elders Climate Action, Mi Familia Vota, Natural Resource Defense Council and Arizona Interfaith Power and Light among others. Much of the financing behind the initiative comes from NextGen Climate Action, a political organization formed by climate leader and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.

Not surprisingly, the initiative faces well-financed opposition from Arizona Public Service Co., owned by Pinnacle West Capital Co., the state’s primary utility that is deeply invested in coal production. Despite industry opposition, nearly 70 percent of Arizona voters said the state needs to do more to address climate change in a poll last year. Recent polls also show that 75 percent of Arizonians support more renewable energy in the state. Supporters point to the steady decline in costs for renewable energy—where prices for solar and wind in Arizona are now lower than coal, nuclear or natural gas.

The Arizona Farm Bureau has come out strongly against Prop 127, claiming that it would increase energy costs for the state’s farmers by 40 percent—though it provides no evidence to support this assertion. The state’s growing dairy operations could be beneficiaries if the biogas market grows. Dairy is the largest agriculture commodity in the Arizona (often alternating with beef from year-to-year), including multiple mega dairies with more than 10,000 active milk cows. Two Arizona large-scale dairies are already using methane digestors. Last month, Pinal County, Arizona, approved funding for a waste treatment plant to process cow manure and food waste into biogas and send through the Kinder-Morgan pipeline to Los Angeles for the oil giant British Petroleum. Across state lines, big California dairies are increasingly viewing biogas production from large-scale animal farms as an additional revenue stream.

Arizona is not alone in including biogas in state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). Food and Water Watch reports that 25 states include biogas from methane digestors as part of their RPS. The inclusion acts essentially as a subsidy for a model of large-scale dairy production that has been linked to water pollution around the country, from Oregon to Wisconsin. Arizona’s growing dairy industry is also facing criticism over excess use of both surface and ground water.

Nevertheless, Arizona’s Proposition 127 is an ambitious push toward renewable energy in a state where an expansion of solar and wind power holds great potential. An impressive coalition of environmental, public health and labor supporters are driving the initiative that would bring economic development benefits, while responding to climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.