In one of the US’s hottest deserts, utilities push gas rather than solar

In one of the US’s hottest deserts, utilities push gas rather than solar

In Fort Mohave, Arizona, even Republican voters are fighting gas power plants as utilities try to lock in fossil fuels

Retirement was pretty idyllic for Mac and Debbie McKeever, who moved to Fort Mohave in Arizona for the desert views, starry nights and fresh air. The couple hosted cocktails by the pool and taco Tuesdays with their neighbors – an active bunch of Republican-voting retirees with a penchant for gas-guzzling RVs and side-by-sides, and the unlikeliest environmental activists.

However, in late November 2023, the McKeevers found out that the local government, the Mohave county board of supervisors, was about to vote on a zoning proposal for a gas-fired peaker plant less than 1,200ft (0.2 miles) from their middle-class neighborhood Sunrise Hills.

Peaker plants are designed to fire up to meet spikes in energy demand when people get home from work or during a heatwave. If approved the plant’s jet engine turbines would block the McKeevers’ view of the majestic Black mountains, while spewing carbon dioxide particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, as well as leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

Mohave Electric Cooperative (MEC) and its umbrella organization, Arizona Electric Power Cooperative (Aepco), claimed this kind of plant is essential to avoid price increases and blackouts. And that the proposed gas-fired peaker is the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable option for their customers – and necessary to end their reliance on coal, they say.

At the board meeting in early December, several residents spoke passionately against building a toxic eyesore so close to their homes. Yet even more folks spoke in favor of the plant, with many repeating the utility’s talking points about affordability, avoiding outages and keeping emergency services running. It was approved by a 4-to-1 majority.

“Life was good. And then the peaker plant turned it into a miserable nightmare,” said Mac McKeever, a retired aerospace manager who helped lead the community’s “not in any neighborhood” campaign.

Over the next few months, the Sunrise Hills retirees – among them many climate crisis skeptics and committed fossil fuel proponents – uncovered a trail of misinformation that appear to suggest MEC and Aepco, which is developing and will own and operate the gas combustion turbines, were at times opaque as they sought to fast-track approval and circumvent closer scrutiny. MEC/Aepco “categorically deny” any effort to intentionally mislead anyone.

The retirees organized and began fact-checking and calling out claims about affordability, outages and low pollution made by MEC and Aepco in the glossy brochure and during public meetings.

It turned out that with a capacity of 98 megawatts, the two-turbine proposal fell just under the 100MW limit that requires a state-mandated comprehensive environmental review of impacts such as emissions, noise and water consumption by an expert committee at the state utility regulator, the Arizona corporation commission (ACC). Yet the utility has openly discussed plans to eventually double the size of the plant.

It also turned out that many of the county residents who spoke favorably of the plant in front of the board were in fact MEC employees and board members.

And while the Mohave gas-fired peaker may be cleaner than coal or diesel plants, gas remains much more harmful to air quality and the climate than renewable energy options – which thanks to recent scientific advances are now, in many cases, as or more cost-efficient and reliable (with battery storage and grid connectivity) than fossil fuel-based sources.

“They thought we were idiots, but we’re educated, retired citizens with nothing else to do but go to battle with them,” said Mary Arciniega, who has asthma and COPD and was among a core group who spent hours sharing research and strategizing in McKeever’s garage.

“We are not activist types, but we educated ourselves and became a force to be reckoned with,” added Deb McKeever, 66, who suffers from asthma, which can be exacerbated by the toxic chemicals spewed out by gas plants.

Yet in Arizona, and many other US states, despite the availability of cheaper and cleaner options, gas expansion is being aided by local and national campaigns against renewables.

The Mohave peaker plant was voted on by the board just weeks after it voted unanimously for a temporary moratorium on renewable energy projects amid claims the county was being blighted by federally funded corporate solar farms to generate green energy for California and Nevada – and that solar would exacerbate current water shortages.

While gas-fired plants are more water efficient than coal-fired electricity, they still use much more than solar, which requires virtually no water after construction.

And while the moratorium excludes local utilities including MEC, it appears to have sown confusion among residents – and even the board. “I will continue to support gas-powered peaker plants as long as we have a moratorium on alternative energy,” said Jean Bishop, one of the five board supervisors, addressing MEC directly at a meeting in April.

MEC’s proposal for new gas infrastructure in one of ​the US’s sunniest swaths of desert, appears to be part of a broader effort to keep Arizona dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come. This is despite the state facing a multitude of worsening climate impacts including extreme heat, drought, floods, wildfires and water scarcity.

Proposals for about three dozen new gas turbines are currently making their way through the state permitting pipeline, according Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’re seeing a rush for gas when we should be getting off fossil fuels. Mohave is just the tip of the iceberg.”

This includes proposals by several utilities that fall just under 100MW that will avoid oversight by the independent power plant and line siting committee, which is part of the ACC, the state utility regulator.

The committee requires a certificate of environmental compatibility and provides the only forum for communities, experts and other interested parties like environmental and ratepayer groups to testify and challenge claims by the utility. Otherwise, residents are limited to making public comments in local air quality and building permit processes.

Last month, the committee rejected a brazen bid by the utility UniSource to exempt its proposed 200MW methane plant from the CEC on the grounds it should be considered as four separate 50MW power plants. (UniSource has appealed the ruling.)

“The utilities claim they need to build more fossil fuels to get off fossil fuels, it’s absurd, but a talking point that’s repeated by lawmakers and commissioners who are ideologically anti-clean energy, anti-Biden and anti-green new deal,” said Autumn Johnson from Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association (AriSEIA), a trade group.

These claims hold weight in the Republican-controlled state legislature, where more than half a dozen anti-renewable bills have been proposed so far this year, in addition to multiple local ordinances restricting or halting renewables like a solar moratorium in Mohave county. Meanwhile, the Republican controlled utility regulator, the ACC, has implemented rules that create unfavorable conditions for rooftop and community solar – and recently voted to repeal the state’s renewable energy mandate, which requires utilities to obtain 15% of their power from clean energy sources by 2025.

This sets the state apart, as most other jurisdictions across the country are mandating utilities to source more electricity from clean sources. As of November 2022, 36 states and Washington DC had established a renewable energy goal, with a third of those requiring 100% clean electricity by 2050 or earlier.

The Mohave case also underscores the influence of misinformation, culture wars and local politics threatening to delay the US’s transition to renewable energy sources, which scientists say is essential to avoiding widespread climate catastrophe.

By mid-2023, there were at least 228 local bans and restrictions to renewable project across 35 states, in addition to nine state-level restrictions, that are so burdensome that they could have the effect of blocking a project, according to the Sabin center for climate change law at Columbia University Law School.

Blocking renewable energy like solar and wind is a top 2024 state legislative priority for the State Policy Network, a hub for affiliated pro-fossil fuels think tanks funded by rightwing and corporate donors.