Little-Known Arizona Utility Election Heating Up

Published: Friday, March 25, 2016 - 2:05pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 4:55pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Nick Brown is running for the Salt River Project’s Board of Directors.
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Nick Brown is door-to-door campaigning by bicycle.

Solar power has become a battle across the Southwest. Homeowners are creating their own power with rooftop panels — and some large utility companies are complaining that creates unfair costs for everyone else.

Now, that argument is playing out in one of the most obscure elections in Arizona.

Nick Brown has knocked on more than 2,000 doors in the last few months. He’s running for the Salt River Project’s Board of Directors.

Brown picks a neighborhood and bikes from house to house, asking for votes in his bid to serve on the board.

“And because you’re a homeowner here and an SRP customer, you have a right to vote in the election,” he tells one resident.

Campaigning is never easy work, but this campaign is a little bit harder than most for one simple reason: Not very many people seem to know that there is an election.

“It’s probably an election you didn’t even know was happening,” Brown said.

Salt River Project – or SRP – is a public power utility and the state’s largest water provider. It was formed in 1903 and each division, water and power, has a board whose members are elected every two years.

The number of people who vote in these elections is almost impossibly low.
Of more than 600,000 eligible voters about 4,000 votes are usually cast. That’s a voter turnout of about a half of one percent.

And that makes it an uphill climb for any challenger looking to unseat an SRP board member. Many current members have served for years and come from families with ties to agriculture in the state.

Fred Ash, the board member Brown is trying to unseat, has been on the board since 1980.

“I do think that, broadly speaking, it’s to the status quo and the incumbent’s advantage to have less participation rather than more,” Brown said.

But last year, the board made a crucial decision to raise rates on rooftop solar customers. Now, a pro-solar, clean energy ticket, including Brown, is organizing to run against Ash and other board members.

“I’m committed to bringing more solar energy to more rooftops in SRP territory, which is, in some ways, the opposite of what the standing board has done over the last year or so,” Brown said at another resident’s house.

Brown said he’s spent most of his career working for clean energy. He came to Arizona to be the Director of Sustainability Practices at ASU. Now, he works as a consultant.

“I don’t think they’re going to successfully make a transition from where their energy sources are now to a clean energy future with leadership that they’ve got now, frankly,” he said.

Fred Ash, the board member Brown is going up against, said he was surprised to face opposition in the election.

“They want to make some changes. Well, good luck, if they get on, because I’ve been trying to make them for 30 years. And it’s a slow process,” Ash said. “We have spent, in the last 10 years, over $142 million subsidizing solar.”

Ash voted for the rate increase on rooftop solar customers last year, but he’s also the reason the rates weren’t retroactively applied to people who had already entered into 20-year leases with independent solar vendors.

“I was the one who thought, you know, I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “I felt like we had a contract with the people and we ought to honor it for the 20 years as the original contract agreed.”

For his own campaign, Ash said he’s reaching out to his family and friends and asking for their votes, just like he has in the past. But traditionally, “It’s something that people really don’t care that much about.”

And it’s complicated. To vote in an SRP election, you have to be a homeowner in SRP territory. Some board positions are voted for based on the acreage you own. You have to request a ballot from SRP, and there are actually two elections – one for the board that oversees water operations and one for the power side.

“It’s just not the solar people trying to figure this out, we’ve been trying to figure this out for decades,” Ash said.

For Brown, getting on the board would be the beginning of a conversation about clean energy, and a way to take SRP in a different direction.

“The longer they hang on to programs and policies that deny us progress, the more challenging it’s going to be for SRP to remain viable as the industry changes,” Brown said.

And, he said, this is his chance to do something concrete.

“For me it’s purely developing an opportunity to make a difference and to accomplish some things that otherwise I don’t see getting off the ground very soon,” Brown said.

Editors note: An earlier version of this article indicated that customers signed solar unit leases with SRP; however, SRP does not enter into solar contracts with customers.

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