Help for coal communities, renewable energy debated by candidates for Arizona Corporation Commission

The Citizens Clean Election Commission debate hosted by Arizona PBS and moderated by Arizona Horizons host Ted Simons and Arizona Republic reporter Richard Ruelas exposed sharp contrasts among the four candidates.|| KAET screenshot

By Ryan Randazzo || Arizona Republic

The candidates competing for two seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission debated Monday whether utilities should offer financial help to communities with closing coal plants, build new nuclear plants and use more renewable energy.

One of the key moments of the debate came when the candidates were asked whether electric companies owed anything to communities like Page, where coal-fired power plants have closed or are scheduled to close.

Republicans Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson said no, while Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Lauren Kuby said yes.

The Corporation Commission sets rates and policies for electric, water and gas utilities. It also sets policies for things like when companies can shut off power for customers who don’t pay and where those companies get their power.

Compensating coal communities for the power plants closing in their midst is controversial for the commissioners. 

Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric company, proposed providing $144 million to coal communities in its last rate case before the commission. The money would have helped the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and non-reservation areas like Joseph City where a coal plant is scheduled to close in a few years.

But the measure did not pass, with concern from some officials and staff that the payments would be improper. Among the many complicating factors was sorting out which utilities and their customers should bear responsibility and how much the different tribes would receive.

Among the concerns were discussions of ratepayer funds going to non-ratepayers.

Commissioners instead voted to continue exploring the idea. Many people in the communities still are hopeful utilities will help them kick start new economic opportunities.

“I am not a fan of just giving money to some of those communities,” said Myers, who is a policy adviser to current Republican Commissioner Justin Olson.

He said he would prefer to see small “micro nuclear” reactors open in those communities to help keep their economies afloat.

“Let’s talk about when the coal plants are starting to shut down … let’s talk about starting to transition them to new generation. Keep that economy working,” Myers said. “Let’s do this transition intelligently instead of just forking out a bunch of money.”

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