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As federal climate funding rolls out, Arizona is still setting up its new energy office

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Friday, October 20, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, October 20, 2023 - 7:18am

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Maren Mahoney
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Maren Mahoney is director of the Governor's Office of Resiliency.

The Governor’s Office of Resiliency doesn’t have a working website yet. Some of its jobs vacancies remain unfilled. And, as of September, there was no sign on the door of the office inside the Arizona Capitol.

"We're a brand new office," said Maren Mahoney, who was appointed by Gov. Katie Hobbs to direct the office. “We’ve been up and running since about the end of February.” 

Mahoney has a law degree, a masters in sustainability, and she was an energy policy adviser for the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates most of the state’s utilities. She has broad marching orders from the governor as an overseer of energy, water, land use, and transportation programs. But when asked what her goals are, Mahoney said she’s still sorting that out.

“We don’t have like a list of priority projects," Mahoney said. 

Hobbs announced the creation of the new Office of Resiliency during her State of the State address in January. More than nine months later, the office is still getting set up. But important deadlines are quickly approaching for federal funding for state-level climate change programs.

In her announcement about the new office, Hobbs noted, "Arizona is one of just a handful of states without a dedicated state agency charged with overseeing sustainability and energy programs." 

That wasn’t always the case.

Arizona used to have a state energy office. But then-Gov. Doug Ducey closed it in 2015 in an effort to downsize state government. Mahoney said that left a void. 

“What we've been missing out on is a more coherent statewide coordinating leadership position on energy," Mahoney said. 

"What we've been missing out on is a more coherent statewide coordinating leadership position on energy."
— Maren Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office of Resiliency

Before Ducey closed it, the energy office for decades had worked to bring federal investments for utility projects to the state. It also ran audits for cities looking to improve energy efficiency. 

“We had a state energy plan that we did every few years that looked at affordability, accessibility, and making sure we had enough energy for the future," said Amanda Ormond, who directed Arizona's energy office from 1995 until 2001. 

Ormond, who now runs the energy consulting agency Ormond Group, said Arizona’s new Office of Resiliency is launching at a critical time when renewable energy technology is seeing major advancements.

“The amount of change in the electric industry I haven't seen in my 30 years working in the industry,” Ormond said. "We're going through this massive change away from fossil fuels to clean energy. Why? Because clean energy is now the least-cost energy resource. So we want to go that direction."  

Arizona gets more than half of its power from fossil fuels and about 10% of its energy from solar power. Ormand points out the state’s population is growing quickly and utilities need to provide more power. She said energy efficiency upgrades and new solar infrastructure will be the cheapest ways to meet increasing demand. But she said those changes will take statewide planning and federal funding.

“To me, that's one of the key things that [the Governor's Office of Resiliency] should be working on initially is trying to secure as much of that federal money as we can, for all kinds of different energy-related projects," Ormond said.  

And there’s never been more federal money available to states for these efforts than there is right now. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, is offering $4.6 billion to states, cities and tribes through a new competitive grant program to fund climate pollution reduction strategies.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, wants to see the state’s new resiliency office aggressively pursue that funding.

“I think we need to get ready fast,” Bahr said.  

The Office of Resiliency has already been awarded a grant for the first phase of planning climate solutions. But to access the largest chunk of funding to implement new climate projects, the state will need to submit a climate action plan to the Environmental Protection Agency by early 2024.

Right now, Arizona doesn’t have a state climate plan.

summer cactus
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
The sun shines behind a saguaro cactus in Phoenix.

The state attempted to make one in 2006. But it came up against major political roadblocks, particularly in the GOP-controlled state legislature. Bahr was on the advisory group that drafted the 2006 plan. She said the group put forward 49 recommendations.

“Some of which required legislation and the ones that required legislation didn’t happen at all,” Bahr said. 

Bahr expects current, deeply divided state lawmakers wouldn’t be any more likely to pass major climate legislation.

But she said she’s pleased the new Office of Resiliency is getting established. Bahr hopes the office may be able to launch programs to increase fuel-efficiency standards among state government fleets or to provide incentives for rooftop solar. The Office of Resiliency is applying for Inflation Reduction Act funding to expand access to solar power for low-income communities. 

Still, with no state climate plan and an energy office that’s been mothballed for eight years, Bahr said, "there’s no doubt that Arizona’s behind.” 

Mahoney said her office will be up to the challenges ahead.

"We are up and running and working very very hard to establish those relationships to get those grant proposals out the door and to establish that long-term vision, but it takes time," Mahoney said. 

But with historic amounts of federal funding available, Bahr said, timing will be critical. 

“We don’t want to miss out on things because we missed a deadline,” Bahr said.  

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