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Monday, 29 April 1996
By Erik M. O'Dowd, lawyer
Arizona Daily Star

Whatever happened to solar power?

It's a fair question to ask in this sun-drenched desert, where the peak demand for power on summer afternoons coincides precisely with the peak supply of sun.

Tucson had quite a flare-up of solar-power activity in the '80s, after the second oil crunch.

The City of Tucson Energy Office in 1984 proposed a Solar Zoning Code, under which home builders were to receive a financial incentive for projects that contained solar features.

In addition, one of the outgrowths of Tucson-Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission in the mid-'80s was an ambitious proposal to create a vast ``Solar Village'' on 820 acres of state-owned land on the far east side of Tucson.

The solar village was to house, and focus employment, for up to 5,000 residents, dependent largely on renewable energy sources.

But that was then. Today, even a casual observer of our city will observe nothing remarkable about the expansion of Tucson's use of its boundless supply of solar energy.

Why is this? To begin with, both the federal and Arizona's solar-power tax credits, were repealed some years ago, though Arizona's was reinstated just last year. Then, the state Energy Office decided to pay less attention to solar power, except beyond the reach of utility lines.

Further, the proposed incentive to Tucson home builders was never adopted by the city, nor were any other local incentives enacted to encourage or promote solar power.

Finally, although the eastside ``Solar Village,'' may proceed in the next few months to public bidding, it has now been renamed ``Civano,'' a Hohokam word, reflecting a de-emphasis of a solar-power component of the project in favor of a concept of a conservation/recycling community, a ``sustainable community development,'' according to Project Manager John Laswick of the city's Office of Economic Development.

Local neglect of solar power is epitomized by the fate of Sun Tran's PV bus shelters. Fifteen years after the installation of the initial 12 solar-powered shelters, only four are now operative, according to Sun Tran's Tom Marlin. And Sun Tran has no plans to install any other solar-powered shelters.

Now, a number of realities retard solar successes, including the fact that fossil-fuel electricity generation remains cheaper than solar generation. Nor can we expect Tucson Electric Power to make much of an effort to create what amounts to direct competition to its own coal-fired supply, in which it is massively invested.

Given that, no significant increase in ``roof-top'' photovoltaic generation nor any form of a large-scale solar generating plant looks likely to come on line soon. Which means that a lot of impediments obstruct the metropolitan energy commission as it prepares its formal presentation to the city and county of an ambitious ``Community Strategic Energy Plan.''

This plan, five years in the making, states that ``Tucson's single major energy source, solar energy, is enormous but still far under utilized.''

The 16-member metropolitan energy commission calls for specific actions, and issues this challenge: ``Tucson has a choice about its energy future. We can either continue down the current energy consumption path and endure the consequences, or we can build a new future by changing our patterns of energy use.''

The metropolitan energy commission plan also recognizes that the longer we wait to capture the sun's power, the more likely spiking energy costs will eventually force us to act.

This suggests that it behooves elected officials here, and in the state Legislature and Corporation Commission, to focus now upon this inexorable collision of demand and supply.

But there is yet a grander reason to act now: It's the right thing to do.

Aren't we already saddling our proverbial grandchildren with enough burdens? Must they also bear them without air conditioning?

And so the elected officials of this community should embrace the metropolitan energy commission's Strategic Energy Plan, and should do so now - not later when some other issue, say, a baseball-field debate, distracts them.

Erik M. O'Dowd is a lawyer in Tucson.