When you have been involved in this industry for five decades, it’s hard to look at where solar energy is today -- compared to where it was in the 1970s -- and not be thankful.
But it hasn't always been an easy road for the institutions and individuals that have made solar their life work in the last half century, and many barriers still exist today. The decision to shutter the Arizona Energy Office earlier this year drives this point home in a personal way for me.
The Energy Office was a little-known government agency that received no state funding, but for more than 40 years it obtained and distributed more than $250 million in federal funds that had a lasting impact on the way Arizonans get and use energy. The Office focused on all forms of energy, not just solar. But it was "in the place of Arizona," as John Yellott would say, that ideas were given life -- tested, proven and proclaimed for the world to see.
I worked in the solar programs of the Energy Office beginning in 1987, and retired as its director in 2010. I am thankful to all the many people whom I worked with over the years, and while it is impossible to mention everyone, or all of the cutting edge projects and programs that started there, here are a handful of examples that stand out to me:
- One of the biggest projects that grew out of the Energy Office in the 1980s and early 1990s was Civano. Located southeast of downtown Tucson, Civano is a resource-efficient community built on what was once state land. The Energy Office played a significant role in turning an 800-acre tract of desert into one of the nation’s first resource-conscience housing developments. Mark Ginsberg was the Energy Office director at the time, and he helped guide the project through a maze of obstacles to obtain the necessary approvals and funding that paved the way for the project to be built. The State Land Department benefitted enormously from this effort, as it sold the tract of land at a premium with all the planning and permits in place for a world-class resource-efficient community.
Mark left the Arizona Energy Office in 1990, and went on to a long and exceptional career at the U.S. Department of Energy. Mark retired as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the DOE in 2011 and is now a senior policy advisor at the US Green Building Council, focusing particularly on green cities and global policy development.
I am thankful for the leadership and dedication Mark provided the Energy Office, and the lasting legacy of his work in Arizona.
(The rest of the story: Two decades after the Civano groundbreaking, as Director of the Energy Office I oversaw funding to a similar model, putting in place a program in partnership with the State Land Department to identify state trust land sites suitable for solar development. As a result of this effort, a 400-acre parcel of state land near Yuma is now home to the 35 megawatt (MW) Foothills Solar Power Plant and is benefitting Arizona K-12 schools as a result of a $10 million 30-year lease of the land.)
- Maxine Robertson was a longtime Energy Office employee. In the early 90s she headed the solar programs and in that role provided support to a small start-up company in Flagstaff. At that time the company was housed in a rickety old garage with a leaky roof and dirt floors, but it would in time become a household word in Flagstaff: Southwest Wind Power. SWP was in the vanguard of the small wind movement in the US, and in its heyday the company was one of the top ten private employers in Flagstaff, manufacturing thousands of small wind turbines annually and exporting them to more than 100 countries worldwide.
Maxine passed away in 2005. I am thankful for our friendship and her contributions to a greener Arizona.
Sun Pumps of Safford was another company that benefitted from a partnership with the Energy Office in its start-up phase. Ray Williamson was in charge of the Solar Division within the Energy Office in the late 1980s and provided assistance to Sun Pumps that helped the company grow and become a permanent part of the landscape in southeastern Arizona. One of their earliest solar pumps was deployed on the Day Ranch near Duncan. The ranch was owned by Alan Day, brother of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman Supreme Court Justice in history.
Today, Ray is a key staff person at the Arizona Corporation Commission helping to sort out the complexities of utility solar policies. I am thankful for everything Ray has done to help get solar energy a fair hearing in Arizona, and for guidance he provided me as I began my career in government.
(The rest of the story: In 2010, the Energy Office's association with Sun Pumps was renewed when we awarded grant funding through a competitive process to the cities of Thatcher and Safford for projects that used Sun Pumps products in their city's water facilities. Safford installed a 58 kilowatt (kW) solar system to assist in powering a 50 horsepower pump to supply water to the city. Thatcher installed a 40 kW PV system to run pumps at its waste water treatment facility. Both projects used Arizona-made product and labor, producing much needed jobs during the great recession and easing the burden of energy costs to taxpayers.)
- Jim Westberg worked in the Energy Office longer than any other person. For nearly 35 years, Jim assisted public facility managers throughout the state make their facilities more energy efficient. He also managed the State Energy Program, and in that role managed grants that resulted in the installation of 473 solar electric systems with a combined nameplate rating of 5.3 MW. Projects ranged from the American Red Cross building in Tucson to the Polly Rosebaum Building in Phoenix.
The Energy Office also pioneered the Solar on Schools program prior to the state's utility companies launching solar school programs of their own. The Energy Office, in partnership with the School Facility Board, funded the installation of 89 solar school projects through the State Energy Program. With nearly $8.5 million in federal funds, the Small School District Solar Program targeted the smallest school districts in the state. Districts were given the opportunity to have a photovoltaic system installed at their school paid entirely by federal funds. System sizes were capped at 70 percent of the district’s utility bills up to a maximum of 30 kW. Systems ranging in size from 4 kW to 30 kW resulted, saving districts an estimated $360,000 annually in electricity costs.
Jim retired in 2013, and now volunteers at Scottsdale Osborn Hospital. I am thankful for his unwavering dedication and commitment to the people of Arizona and its institutions.
We all should be thankful for the efforts of the hundreds of people that worked in the Energy Office over the past 40 years -- I know I am.
Arizona Solar Center