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Solar advocates optimistic for industry in 2015

PHOENIX — Despite some ups and downs in 2014, some solar advocates say they are optimistic about the future of the industry in 2015.

Advocates such as Bret Fanshaw with Environment Arizona said he has seen far more growth in solar energy than he could have expected over the past few years and that includes 2014.

“Over the last three years Arizona (solar) grew on average at 142 percent per year in the state and so it’s really taking off,” he said.

Part of the industry’s boom is thanks to many of Arizona’s city governments jumping on board and opting to use clean energy.

“In the face of some opposition at the state level to advancing solar, local government is really taking on solar energy as an option to power their cities,” Fanshaw said. “We’ve seen officials in Mesa, Mayor Mark Mitchell in Tempe and some folks in Phoenix really working to make sure we’re moving solar and clean energy forward at the local levels.”

In March, Tempe completed its largest solar project to date by powering its South Water Treatment Plant with solar energy, while earlier this year Mesa installed solar systems on one of the city’s fire and police stations as well as on a multigenerational center.

Some public utilities have also given advocates such as Fanshaw reason to be optimistic with increased incentive programs for solar customers.

Tucson Electric Power announced this month it is working on an incentive program to get about 600 customers off and running with solar starting in the spring of 2015.

Spokesman for the utility, Joseph Barrios said customers can sign up online and get solar panels for their home for next to nothing.

“TEP will own, install and maintain rooftop solar panels at our customer’s homes,” he said and by doing so, will spare customers from having to worry about the costs associated with unplugging from the electricity grid.

“They don’t have to purchase the panels, which can, you know, depending on your energy needs and your home, that can cost thousands if not tens of thousands (of dollars) for the maintenance and installation of those systems,” he said.

Barrios said the only initial cost is a $250 administrative fee that will need to be paid once a customer qualifies.

After that, the program will help customers avoid price fluctuation by giving them a set, monthly fee for the next 25 years that is comparable to what their average energy costs already are, according to Barrios.

The program will also help provide more solar energy back into the grid and is meant to help reach rooftop solar goals, Barrios said.

One of the setbacks solar advocates may face in 2015 is the cutting of some of those solar goals by public utilities, which are set by the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Fanshaw said the ACC has previously set a state goal of 4.5 percent energy production by rooftop solar panels by 2025, but those goals could be curtailed in the coming year. The commission also has two newly elected commissioners, Tom Forese and Doug Little, who will join the ACC in January and could have an effect on future solar goals and policies.

The Salt River Project is also mulling over an increase to fees for solar users in the range of $50 per month, which Fanshaw said could eventually come to affect roughly 12,000 solar customers.

Public hearings on the proposed fees will be held in January and February but the decision will ultimately lie with the company’s Board of Directors.

Fanshaw said with all the growth solar has experienced in the past several years, it’s important for Arizona to continue that trend and he hopes to see 25 percent of Arizona’s energy production come from solar by 2025.

“I think 2015 could be a sunny year again for the solar industry but we need to make sure not to take steps backward,” he said.