Sustainable Energy in Arizona
Fall 2011

This article explores sustainability in Arizona’s electric power industry. The word “sustainability” has become almost ubiquitous and yet it is very difficult to articulate a consensus meaning. This paper defines sustainability very broadly as the ability of a particular activity to continue indefinitely, as explained in the introductory paragraph to Section I. Given this broad definition, comparing the environmental sustainability of various resource options (e.g., coal, solar, nuclear) is only the beginning of the sustainability considerations related to Arizona’s electric power industry. Accordingly, this paper begins with a comparison of resources but also discusses economic impacts and the process used to site electric facilities through the prism of sustainability.

The first section is an overview of some of the major sustainability considerations related to the generation, distribution, and use of electricity in Arizona, although most of them apply equally in other jurisdictions.1 The second section provides background information about some of the various generation resources’ characteristics related to sustainability. The third and fourth sections address, respectively, the critical role of transmission lines in achieving a sustainable energy industry and the legal processes used to site new transmission lines in Arizona. The fifth section of this article describes some of the existing efforts to improve siting processes and the final section proposes additional potential solutions to specific problems with the current processes.


This paper focuses on sustainable energy in Arizona, a subject that is intended to encompass much more than the phrase “renewable energy.” In the most general sense, sustainability means that a certain human activity can continue indefinitely without risk of collapse. The collapse of an activity, usually a specific process used by society to achieve some beneficial result, could be caused by the exhaustion of required inputs or unacceptable consequences from the activity. Sustainability is also sometimes expressed as meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. As it is used in environmental contexts, sustainability typically means that the demands of human beings be satisfied in a way that does not deplete natural resources faster than they can be replenished.

Sustainability is an evolving concept. This is mostly due to humans’ inability to evaluate (or perhaps just a tendency to overlook) all of the consequences of a particular process. As a result, a process that is initially touted as more sustainable than the status quo might turn out to be less sustainable; or at least less of an improvement than initially thought. One good example of this phenomenon is ethanol fuel which has received federal subsidies since 1978 as an environmentally friendly alternative to foreign oil. After numerous studies, it is now believed that it takes almost as much oil to produce ethanol as is displaced by its use. Our understanding of the actual sustainability of current efforts in the electric power industry will also evolve. For example, one issue that has not yet been fully evaluated is the increased rare earth mining and processing required to manufacture solar and wind generating equipment. Proponents of sustainability should always attempt to look at the full picture and to take a long-term perspective.

Sustainable energy means meeting society’s electricity demands in a way that could continue indefinitely. Renewable energy means only that electricity is produced from renewable resources. Although the use of renewable resources by itself addresses some important sustainability issues, there are other sustainability considerations that can vary considerably between different renewable resources and renewable energy projects. This section discusses some of the most important sustainability issues related to Arizona’s electric power generation and distribution system including climate change, water, land use, cost, economic development, and
demand growth.

A. Climate Change

Climate change usually refers to long-term changes in the earth’s temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, and other measures of climate as a result of human activity. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution is an observational fact. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) found that human activity is primarily responsible for this increase4 and a leading legal expert states “[t]his is not an especially controversial conclusion.” Further, scientists generally agree that the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in its atmosphere is the primary cause of the earth’s increasing surface temperature—another observational fact—via the “greenhouse effect.” To state it simply, greenhouse gases absorb heat radiating from the earth’s surface that would otherwise pass through to space and then radiate some of it back towards the earth. Although the precise outcome of climate change cannot be predicted, it is widely agreed that climate change could have serious adverse effects on human life.

To read the article in full, please click here for the pdf version.