Solar jobs are coming to Arizona, and environmentalists, economists and engineers can’t wait
Holding up blue and green signs reading “Climate Can’t Wait” and “Fight for Our Future,” a coalition of local leaders on the front lines of Arizona’s climate fight gathered Thursday — just ahead of Labor Day — at the Tempe Transportation Center to celebrate the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
The measure, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 16, includes $369 billion to reduce carbon emissions and expand renewable energy infrastructure, with $60 billion earmarked for clean manufacturing job creation.
At a short news conference, the activists took turns thanking Arizona elected leaders who supported the historic bill, which they say will also cut energy costs while addressing climate change, drought and extreme heat to support healthier communities.
Among those mentioned were Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who played a role in securing an additional $4 billion in the IRA’s budget for western drought resiliency, as well as Sen. Mark Kelly and Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Tom O’Halleran, Ruben Gallego, Ann Kirkpatrick and Greg Stanton, all Arizona Democrats.
Arizona already ranked fifth in the nation for solar-powered electricity generation in 2021, according to a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But solar still only made up 9% of Arizona’s total electricity net generation, with the majority of sources being natural gas (43%), nuclear power (28%) and coal (13%). Many local experts say that 9% number could be much higher.
“We effectively have zero fossil fuel industry in Arizona. And what that means is that we import essentially all of our fossil fuels into this state, which hurts our bottom line,” Troy Rule, a law professor at Arizona State University who has authored multiple books on renewable energy, said in an April interview with The Arizona Republic. “But photons from the sun come straight down onto all of Arizona every day for free. So if we were to fix that problem, it would create huge economic benefit for the state forever going forward.”
During Thursday’s event, environmental groups estimated that passage of the Inflation Reduction Act may add more than 82,000 clean energy jobs in Arizona over five years, based on a 2020 report that projected job growth from a similar federal clean energy stimulus measure. Many of those jobs will be in the solar industry, helping to remedy the gap experts like Rule see between Arizona’s current investment in solar energy and its potential.
“Together, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act make a massive down payment on our state’s small businesses and energy future,” said Jason Lowry, Director of Sustainability Initiatives for Local First Arizona, a nonprofit focused on community and economic development. “These two bills will help businesses increase their commitments to the small-businesses sustainability movement in Arizona and play a leading role in creating a new and green economy.”
Balancing the solar equation
The project, sponsored by Ford Motors because of its implications for electric vehicle charging, estimated financial and carbon savings of solar home energy systems for five major metro areas: Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, Portland and Phoenix.
Phoenix consistently came out on top as one of the best domestic locations for solar energy potential, in terms of both economic benefits and reduced carbon dioxide emissions, which are driving climate change by holding more heat from the sun in the atmosphere and energizing increasingly chaotic storms.
The researchers, based at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, estimated that a photovoltaic array in Phoenix would cost, on average, just $2.33 to install per watt of energy generated, compared to $2.66 in Los Angeles, $2.70 in Austin, $2.81 in Portland and $3.01 in Atlanta. That’s because Phoenix offers the greatest exposure of panels to the sun’s rays over the course of a year. Multiplied by a standard 10 kilowatt (kW) solar array size that is often considered necessary to produce 100% of the energy used in a typical American household during a year, that adds up to a system that is approximately $7,000 cheaper in Phoenix compared to Atlanta.
And those numbers were calculated based on the 26% federal solar tax credit that was in place at the time of the study. The IRA bumps that number to 30% for 10 years starting in 2022, further increasing the advantage of solar in places like Phoenix.
What’s more, the study determined that a 10 kW solar array in Phoenix would actually produce about twice the energy consumed by an average utility customer, potentially resulting in owners receiving about $637 back from the utility for excess energy generated in a year. The same size array in Los Angeles would still come with substantial energy bill savings, but also a $1,062 bill per year for additional energy pulled from the grid.
“For Phoenix, the most obvious result of this paper was y’all have exceedingly great solar resources,” said Steven Johnston, a PhD student in Georgia Tech’s Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and the study’s lead author. “Your climate is absolutely perfect for solar power. It’s hard to find one that would be better.”
With these “stellar” stats, as Johnston called them, the average 10 kW home solar system would pay for itself in just 11 years in Phoenix, but would take 29 years before it paid off in Portland and would carry a 44-year payback period in Atlanta, where already-cheap energy reduces possible savings.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant
That perfect climate for solar in Phoenix also offers environmental benefits by offsetting carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, helping to slow climate change and reduce air pollution, thereby supporting the healthy communities initiative mentioned by local environmental groups Thursday.
Johnston and his co-author and adviser, Bert Bras, found that a 10 kW solar array in Phoenix would keep 10,450 kg of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year, compared to 3,168 kg of prevented emissions in Portland and 5,308 kg in Los Angeles. For arrays in Austin and Atlanta, they estimated a reduction in emitted carbon of 8,870 kg and 8,696 kg, respectively, due to lower panel generation and a heavier grid reliance on fossil fuels in those areas.
“For a person in Phoenix, when they pull one kWh of electricity from the grid, they can be responsible for 0.3828 kg of CO2 being put into the atmosphere,” Johnston explained. “In Portland, for example, pulling the same amount of energy would only result in 0.1769 kg CO2 being emitted because their energy grid is a lot cleaner.”
Which brings the conversation back to Troy Rule’s point: If only 9% of Arizona’s total electricity net generation came from solar in 2021 and Phoenix led every metric calculated by Johnston and Bras for financial and carbon savings of solar arrays, the potential benefits of expanding solar energy generation in Arizona may be huge.
“The Inflation Reduction Act is a much-needed shot in the arm for Arizona’s solar energy industry,” Rule told The Republic on Tuesday. “The 10-year extension of the investment tax credit is especially a game-changer because it provides the certainty and stability needed to support substantial new solar investment in the state.”
Cleaning up Arizona’s grid won’t happen automatically with the passage of the IRA, though. It’ll likely take utility coordination and political pressure from groups like those led by the Sierra Club at Thursday’s Tempe event.
“Unlike most of our neighboring states, Arizona has been unable to update its renewable energy standard in recent years due to political opposition, and we’re underperforming with regard to our pace of solar development given our world-class solar resources,” Rule said.
Focusing rays of hope
Another theme at Thursday’s press conference was one of environmental injustices worsened by climate change. When average global temperatures and energy demands rise, low-income families and older residents on fixed incomes are hit hardest, sometimes dying in their homes as they attempt to suffer through a heat wave while keeping air conditioning bills low. (Of course, heat deaths are even higher among unsheltered Arizonans and outdoor workers with no air conditioning.)
“On average, families representing the lowest 40% of the income scale pay 25.7% of their income for energy and gas while the top 20% pay 4.8%,”said Kelly McGowan, Deputy Director of Wildfire AZ, at Thursday’s event. “Too often, it is not economically viable for low-income families to afford to participate in carbon reduction technologies. The Inflation Reduction Act is a step forward in addressing these financial barriers.”
With that in mind, the coalition of climate activist groups, which included Arizona Interfaith Power and Light and Moms Clean Airforce Arizona, intend to make sure solar progress doesn’t stall out and that the IRA benefits are put to full use in the state.
In particular, Yara Marin of Vote Solar and Bill Ruiz of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1912, aim to facilitate the job prospects presented by the clean energy initiatives in the IRA for Arizona.
“One of the things we really want to do is make sure we can get the funds and the benefits back to community members,” Marin told The Republic at Thursday’s event. “We recognize that (the IRA) is going to reduce barriers (to) things like solar and new clean technologies, but sometimes that still not enough.”
Vote Solar wants to remove low income verification barriers, like credit checks, that can keep some home owners from pursuing solar incentives. They hope to help streamline the process by pushing for food benefit qualifications, for example, to check the box for income-based solar panel assistance.
“I grew up in south central Phoenix and I never saw solar panels in my neighborhood,” Marin said. “I would see solar panels when I drove to Scottsdale and so, for me, it was a luxury having solar on your roof. It’s for the rich. Fast forward a decade later, it’s becoming more accessible and really helping mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
Marin reiterated that the IRA offers solutions for environmental justice, climate change and the economy all at once by providing tens of thousands of jobs in solar panel installation work. Ruiz hopes to get his group involved in that space.
Nearly half of all workers in the construction industry are on some kind of government assistance, Ruiz said. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, of which he is one of about 4,000 local members, is advocating to make sure the IRA investment in solar supports higher wage standards as well as better training and safety on the job.
The union has a four-year apprenticeship program to train students for clean energy jobs. Students earn wages while completing their coursework, with potential annual earnings up to $73,000 during their last year. If they decide not to go into clean energy construction, those credits are transferrable to the University of Phoenix or Pima County Community College and count toward an associate degree.
He says the program attracts a lot of young kids coming out of high school and has about a 53% Hispanic membership.
“With the training that we’re starting to introduce with different (clean energy) methods, I think you’re going to see more young kids, 20-somethings. They’re excited,” Ruiz said. “It’s still a developing industry. It’s not mainstream yet, but it’s getting there.”
In an interview with The Republic, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego also touted a job training partnership between the city and Maricopa Community College called Route to Relief. Launched in late July, it offers free tuition, monthly stipends and employment assistance for eligible students pursuing training for clean energy manufacturing jobs, among other lines of work. It was established with $7 million from the city’s federal pandemic relief funding and is part of what the Mayor sees as the city’s commitment to an expanded solar energy future.
“We’re seeing more and more solar in our communities and as part of new buildings,” Gallego said. “We keep having to hire new folks to do inspections on solar systems because there is such demand. And the Department of Energy just worked with us to try to develop an online tool to make it go faster because residential applications have doubled over the last two years.”
With the climate stakes high and the technology at the ready, it seems Arizona’s future is bright, with the dial on clean energy funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, pressure from environmental groups to use it and local enthusiasm for solar turned all the way up.
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