Tucson is thinking about creating its own public utility company to have more control over the power grid and where power comes from.

The idea stems from efforts to identify options for moving from fossil fuel power plants to clean and renewable energy. Those efforts could be done in partnership with Tucson Electric Power or the council could explore community-based recommendations that would “create a public power utility that would be fully owned by City of Tucson,” according to the report.

There are variations of community-owned utilities across the state, including the Page Utility Enterprises in Northern Arizona, which has operated since 1986. The not-for-profit public-power utility is “owned and operated by the City of Page, and is therefore owned by the citizens of the community and customers whom it serves.”

It looks like Tucson homes could also get composting bins in addition to recycling bins.

Those measures and many others are included in a draft proposal the city dropped on Jan. 30 called “Tucson Resilient Together: Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.”

As climate change leads to more extreme heat threats, a University of Arizona expert has warned city planners need to get ready. Tucson joins Phoenix, Tempe and Flagstaff in preparing a climate action plan. Arizona cities are late to this planning process compared to other areas of the U.S. 

Here’s the thing: Tucson’s draft report is 156 pages, plus there’s a 114-page appendix. So Arizona Luminaria made you this quick guide.

The big ideas 

The report floats a proposal to start a city-owned public power utility to have more control over the power grid. The plan calls for a feasibility study to be done by 2025, before the city renews its agreement with Tucson Electric Power.

There’s a list of “24 strategies and 122 actions,” as well as estimated cost ranges, starting on Page 72. Some of the action items include:

  • Starting a new organic waste curbside collection program for composting
  • Helping people prepare for emergencies with climate action tool kits, starting “resilience hubs” for training and forming community emergency response teams
  • Changing building codes to promote energy efficiency and zero emissions in newly constructed buildings and reducing permit fees for solar installation
  • Incentivizing green building retrofits with funds, loan programs and training programs for homeowners and business owners
  • Installing more shade canopies, shade trees, splash pads and drinking fountains

There’s quite a bit in the plan for boosting infrastructure for walking, bicycling and transit. A proposal for making Tucson less car-centric promotes the idea of a “15-minute city,” where people can walk or bike 15 minutes to school, work and shops. Plans include:

  • Protected bike lanes
  • Transit improvements like more frequent buses and bus stops with shade
  • Solar street lights
  • A new electric car-sharing program

The plan highlights inequalities, including facts like the lack of shade trees and public pools on the south side, and includes ways to correct them.

The background 

  • The Tucson City Council declared a Climate Emergency in September 2020.
  • In that process, the city committed to making this plan, plus reaching carbon neutrality for city operations by 2030. 
  • Then in July 2021, an additional goal was added: city-wide carbon neutrality by 2045.
  • The plan was paid for from the city’s general fund and from federal pandemic relief funds and cost $450,000. That included paying for international engineering and design consultant Buro Happold, which was criticized by some as excessive spending. 

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What’s in the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

  • The greatest reduction will come from Tucson Electric Power moving toward 70% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2035. They’re currently at about 20%.
  • The city will change more of its fleet to electric vehicles by 2030, use more electric buses, and power more city buildings using solar power.

Why the plan matters 

  • Extreme heat and other changes also involve city resources, like Tucson’s green stormwater infrastructure and Phoenix’s Heat Relief Network, says UA heat researcher Ladd Keith. 
  • “Tucson is one of the fastest-warming cities in the country and we can already see dangerous implications,” Mayor Regina Romero wrote in her introduction to the draft plan. Those dangers include extreme heat, blackouts, wildfire and drought, she said.
  • Climate change is a global problem but “it is critical that we as a city do our part,” the plan says.

What’s happening with climate change locally

  • It’s getting hotter. For 123 years (1895-2018) the average annual temperature was 66.8 degrees. “However, in almost every year since 1985, the county’s average annual temperatures have exceeded that figure,” the report says. And projections say it’ll keep getting hotter.
  • There could be more extremely hot days. For 29 years (1971-2000) there were typically 4 days over 105 degrees in Tucson. Projections show the city is headed for at least 35 days of 105-plus by mid-century and more by later in the century, the report says.
  • Storms are getting more intense. In the Southwest, average annual precipitation is going down. But in Tucson, annual precipitation “has slightly increased over time, and monsoons have become more intense” with more rain and more dust storms, the report says.

What’s next and how to participate

The plan is expected to receive final approval from the city council at its March 7 meeting. The meeting will be livestreamed on YouTube.

The planning process included surveys, events and a public comment period, but it’s not too late to participate. Call or email the mayor or council members before the March 7 meeting.

Paying for the plans to become reality will be the topic of future city budget talks, and some funding may be created if voters approve a new agreement with TEP in a special election in May.

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.