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Phoenix officials tout solar program as nationwide possibility

WASHINGTON — A Phoenix residential solar-energy project could be replicated around the country, said Valley business and government representatives in a meeting Wednesday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Solar Phoenix, a $25 million program that created incentives for 445 homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs, was successful enough that a second phase is in the works that will “be much, much bigger,” said Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

He was accompanied to the meeting with Chu by National Bank of Arizona Senior Vice President Craig Robb and Rob Antoniak, a community relations manager for Arizona Public Service.

“The secretary was very excited and wanted to use us as a model across the country, particularly the Southwest,” Gordon said in an interview after the meeting.

The program – backed by the city, the bank, the utility and California-based SolarCity Inc. – created a lease system that let homeowners install solar power with little to no up-front costs. It also removed the need for a utility customer to go to several different agencies to collect rebates.

“I think, Secretary Chu, he’s seen other models, but I don’t think he’s seen anything delivered as efficiently and quickly,” Robb said.

Antoniak said Solar Phoenix is helping APS toward its goal of providing 15 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2025.

Federal funding of renewable energy projects has come under fire recently, after solar firm Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving a $535 loan guarantee from the Energy Department.

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In light of that, and the government’s efforts to reduce the national debt, Gordon said a privately backed venture like Solar Phoenix could fill in where the department might not invest.

“National Bank of Arizona isn’t doing it out of the goodness of their heart,” Gordon said. “Nor is Arizona Public Service. They need to make sure their rates cover their expenses. The National Bank and SolarCity need to make a profit.”

Robb, whose bank carried much of the financial risk for Solar Phoenix, said he is aware of the rhetoric about DOE stimulus funds, but he believes the risks of funding solar power are no different than those for any other young industry.

“I think anybody’s going to be sensitive to this,” he said. “There’s a concern whenever a newer industry is coming out.”

The visit with Chu was one of three Gordon had scheduled for his two days in the nation’s capital. He spoke with Department of Transportation officials Wednesday morning and is scheduled to meet with White House staff Thursday – in both cases to discuss President Barack Obama’s jobs bill, among other projects.

Energy Department officials did not respond Wednesday to a request for details on the secretary’s meeting with the Valley representatives.

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