with Paulina Firozi

THE LIGHTBULB

Arizona’s biggest electric utility spent millions of dollars in 2018 to defeat a renewable energy ballot initiative. Just two years later, it now says it wants to get all of its power from carbon-free sources.

As Steven Mufson and I report this morning, Arizona Public Service announced an ambitious plan to wean itself entirely off fossil fuels by 2050, with the intermediate goal of getting nearly two-thirds of its electricity from nuclear and renewable sources by 2030.

The drastic about-face for the electric utility is a sign of how the political climate has changed. 

Voters rejected the measure shifting the state to renewables in the 2018 election, even after billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's campaign in support of the ballot measure known as Proposition 127 brought the total amount spent on both sides to at least $62.8 million. APS's announcement makes it less likely there will another big ballot initiative fight in future elections.

“I am very encouraged by the news from Arizona Public Service this morning and I am also happy that our efforts behind Proposition 127 in 2018 are finally moving Arizona to a more clean energy future,” Steyer, who is now a Democratic candidate for president, said in a statement Wednesday morning. “The plan put forth by APS shows that when public interest advocates keep pushing energy companies, they can get real results.”

In its own news release, APS said that after the ballot initiative fight the utility “took a hard look at our generation mix and future plans” when setting its carbon-free energy goals.

APS's plan, which is not legally binding, outstrips the modest renewable requirements already on the books in Arizona that mandate that it rely on renewable energy for 15 percent of supplies by 2025. Yet it's especially striking since the electric utility poured $37.9 million into a campaign to defeat the ballot initiative, which would have required APS to meet a similar goal — generating 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

The decision comes just two months into the tenure of the utility’s new chief executive, Jeff Guldner, who told state regulators last week that APS will not fund candidates for the commission that regulates the utility. That also represents a reversal. In 2016, the utility and its parent, Pinnacle West Capital, gave at least $4.2 million to a political action committee that promoted members of the Arizona Corporation Commission who were sympathetic to the company’s views.

“As chairman and CEO of both APS and Pinnacle West, I can say under my leadership Pinnacle West and APS and any of our affiliates will neither directly or indirectly participate in any election of any corporation commissioner through either financial or in-kind support,” Guldner said in an appearance at the commission Jan. 14.

Investors welcomed the change in tone. “We see value in [Pinnacle West] under new leadership that is already taking tangible steps to improve the regulatory relationship in Arizona,” the electric utilities analysts at Credit Suisse said a report to investors on Tuesday.

Right now, coal, natural gas and nuclear power each represent about a quarter of the electricity APS generates. 

One way APS says it plans to meet its new goals is by ceasing to generate electricity from burning coal by 2031. The company currently has majority stakes in two large coal-fired power plants, according to a report prepared for the Sierra Club by Strategen Consulting. The report said that keeping open the aging coal plants, which are 50 and 51 years old each, was uneconomic.

Crucial to APS’s energy mix — both now and going forward — is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in western Arizona, the nation’s largest nuclear power plant. The station, which doesn't emit greenhouse gases and which APS co-owns and operates, is licensed to run into the 2040s.

But APS said it will rely on existing gas-fired power in the “near term” to make “a sensible transition to clean generating sources.” Over the long term, the utility plans to build large storage facilities, including a previously announced 850-megawatt expansion.

Ultimately, the utility said that it will meet its new targets with a combination of renewable resources, and it added that it is banking on technological advances to eventually eliminate the need for natural gas while maintaining reliable service.

With its huge sun-drenched deserts, Arizona ranked second in the nation in total solar energy generation in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But that is only a fraction of the state’s potential to draw power from the sun.

POWER PLAYS

Climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 21. (Reuters)

— At Davos, it's Trump vs. Greta: There was a stark contrast between the remarks by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and President Trump as they both spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, The Post’s Rick Noack reports.

  • What Greta said: On Tuesday, the teen activist renewed her call to “start listening to the science” on climate change and to “treat this crisis with the importance it deserves.” At a second speech on Tuesday, she declared: “Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour. And we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.” And in an apparent jab at Trump's pledge earlier that day, she added: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed.”
  • What Trump said: The president warned other global leaders to ignore warnings from environmental activists who, without naming names, he described as “prophets of doom.” And on Thunberg specifically, Trump asked reporters Wednesday: "How old is she?" When told she is 17, he responded: "That's good. She beat me out on Time magazine." 
Scientist Nestor Gregorio works with communities across the Philippines to help them become stakeholders in restoring their land. (The Washington Post)

— Talk of planting trees to help curb global warming is growing: In his pledge in Davos, Trump said the United States would join 1t.org, a project to connect the Trillion Tree Campaign and other reforestation programs around the world. One organization, Plant for the Planet, is responsible for planting millions of new trees worldwide and is “part of a growing constellation of campaigns that seek to reforest every continent except Antarctica,” The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. He writes that while many environmentalists would agree with Thunberg’s warning at Davos that planting tees won’t solve global warming, it “offers a simple, accessible, low-tech idea with wide appeal.” 

  • Why trees can help: “Trees are the most efficient carbon-capture machines on the planet. Through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that traps heat in the environment, and turn it into energy. That energy creates new leaves, longer stems and more mass — locking away carbon. That makes healthy forests carbon sinks.” But he notes that the species of tree matters, as well as maturity and location.
  • There are concerns about these efforts, too: “It is actually very worrying that so many campaigns are set up by organizations that say they want to plant a billion or trillion trees without obviously having any idea about what it takes,” said Pieter van Midwoud of Ecosia, a Berlin-based search engine that uses profits to sponsor tree planting.

— Meanwhile, a GOP climate plan that includes a focus on trees: Republican lawmakers shared some details with Axios of a climate plan that among other things will include efforts to capture carbon emissions, such as with trees. 

  • Some details: Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) is “working on legislation, called the Trillion Trees Act, which would, among other things, create a national target for increasing the number of trees grown in the U.S. ‘for the purpose of sequestering carbon,’ according to a summary of the bill viewed by Axios. It doesn’t (yet) include a numerical national target, but it’s not actually a trillion.” Other targets include an expanded tax credit for businesses that capture carbon. The plan probably will also include proposals to boost conservation and clean energy innovation and funding, per Axios.

— Agencies scaling back plan to relax Obama-era fuel standards: The Trump administration is reconsidering its plan to ease Obama-era mileage requirements. It initially wanted to cap mileage and auto emissions requirements after the 2020 model years. But a draft of the final rule is undergoing review by the White House and includes “several changes that could make it easier to defend in court and more palatable to some automakers that had refused to publicly endorse the earlier proposal,” Bloomberg News reports.

  • The new details: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department are now “planning to require annual 1.5% increases in the stringency of those requirements for 2021-2026 vehicle fleets, under the draft final rule submitted to the White House for review on Jan. 14,” per the report. “In addition, the measure would spare automakers from radical changes to the complex system of mile-per-gallon and carbon dioxide emission credits that are used to measure compliance, the people said.”

— Supreme Court clears way for Flint lawsuit: The high court is allowing victims of the 2014 lead water crisis in Michigan to move forward with a lawsuit against city and state officials. "For years, Flint city officials and state regulators have argued that they are protected by 'qualified immunity' from being sued for their role in the water contamination crisis. But lower courts have ruled to the contrary," NPR reports. "In refusing to take up a pair of cases involving the lead-tainted water, the Supreme Court has upheld those lower court rulings."

— Disappearance of a well-known advocate for monarch butterflies alarms community: Homero Gómez González, a well-known Mexican conservationist and advocate for monarch butterflies was last seen on Jan. 13., and his disappearance has alarmed human rights activists. Gómez González was the former commissioner of the town of Rosario and manages the local butterfly reserve, The Post’s Siobhán O'Grady writes.

  • The details not yet clear: “Although the circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear, commission official Mayte Cardona told Reuters her organization has asked the attorney general’s office to investigate whether it is tied to his conservation work,” O'Grady reports, adding environmental activists are “often targeted in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.”

Philadelphia refinery sale expected: The bankrupt Philadelphia Energy Solutions is set to sell its refinery site to a real estate developer, a move that comes after a fire and series of explosions damaged the site in June, Reuters reports. The sale to Chicago-based developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners “would reduce the possibility that the more-than 1,300-acre ... Philadelphia site would be resurrected as an oil refinery,” according to Reuters, though “it is possible that Hilco could lease it to a refinery, biofuels or other heavy industrial operation.” The sale would still need a green light from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.

— Another green push for Starbucks: The world’s largest coffee chain said it wants to add more plant-based food and drinks to its menu as part of its latest sustainability push, and also plans to eventually move toward reusable packaging, Reuters reports. So far, the company has “laid out targets for 2030 including halving landfill waste from stores, and carbon emissions from its direct operations and supply chain. The targets were informed by research from the World Wildlife Fund and sustainability consultant Quantis, Starbucks said.” 

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on “Oversight of the Economic Development Administration.”
  • The Nuclear Energy Institute's Nuclear Fuel Supply Forum begins.

Coming Up

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.
  • The Brookings Institution holds an event on climate threats and climate justice on Friday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Beware of falling reptiles: The National Weather Service warned that cold-stunned iguanas could fall from the trees as Florida braced for its coldest night in as many as two years, The Post's Matthew Cappucci writes