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How one Arizona official pushes a green agenda in the sunbelt

Before Arizona Commissioner Sandra Kennedy was elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 1986, she was a young campaign volunteer for another state politician -- former State Senator Carolyn Walker.

“She was a neighbor of mine who served for almost six years in the legislature,” Commissioner Kennedy said of Walker.

Every Saturday morning the now commissioner and her neighbor bowled, and on one particular Saturday, Walker walked into the bowling alley and told Kennedy, “I just want you to know, I’m going to run for the Senate.”

“I thought she was joking,” Commissioner Kennedy said, laughing. In the alley, she replied to her friend sarcastically: “Yeah right, and I’m going to run for the House.”

“You know that’s a great idea,” her neighbor responded. “You going to still walk with me on Monday?” Walker asked.

Kennedy agreed. Without fail, on Monday afternoon her neighbor was at her house with a packet to apply to run for Senate and a packet for Sandra to apply to run for the House.

“Now all we have to do is get signatures,” her friend said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kennedy replied.

“No I’m very serious,” Walker told her. And without hesitation, Sandra Kennedy ran for office.

At the time, Commissioner Kennedy had a five-year-old, and every day, they’d walk around their neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona to get signatures. “Would you vote for my mommy?” her daughter Mahogany would ask, knocking on doors. “She’s running for the legislature.”

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy and her grandchildren. Image Credit: Reelect Sandra Kennedy

After serving in the House of Representatives for 6 years, Kennedy went on to successfully run for the Senate where she would serve for 3 years. It was there she passed Arizona's first laws to protect victims of domestic abuse. And after her senatorship, Kennedy was elected a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2008. She has served for almost a decade and a half, most recently winning the commissioner Democratic primary to move on to November elections for this year.

For Kennedy, climate and sustainability policies are key pillars of her policy agenda for creating a thriving economy in Arizona.

She has a fierce voice and ever since being elected to the state's financial oversight body, she's been a strong consumer advocate for renewable energy, energy efficiency, water preservation and pollution reduction.

The first and only African American in Arizona to hold statewide office and the first elected African American statewide elected official, west of the Mississippi, made solar energy development a pillar of her platform.

“I took on the charge and solar became my mantra,” she said.

Commissioner Kennedy was inspired by Renz Jennings, a devoted advocate of solar who served on the Corporation Commission at the time.

He had been a proponent for renewable energy since the late 1970’s the Commissioner said, and would always say, “We got to do something better. We have to make them go solar, Sandra.” “I would laugh at him,” she admitted, but as time went on and her daughter and other children aged, “I thought, we’ve got to change the world,” she said. “We’ve got to change to change Arizona.” States around The Grand Canyon State were investing in the climate, and Commissioner Kennedy wondered: “Why isn’t Arizona bettering itself?”

Since then, her goals have evolved into ensuring the affordability of clean, efficient energy. When she was first sworn into the Corporation Commission, she had the opportunity to serve with Kris Mayes, a current candidate for Arizona Attorney General.

Kennedy describes Mayes as a staunch supporter of renewable energy and making Arizona a better environment and a better place to live. “She was a great teacher,” the Commissioner said.

Learning from Mayes catalyzed an energy-efficient platform for Kennedy and the two worked with the Republican Majority to set a standard for energy efficiency.

While the rules they set were supposed to last 20 years after 2008, the makeup of the commission hindered the standard from reinvestment, Kennedy said. Though the standard went away, Commissioner Kennedy remains committed to make solar and efficient energy affordable.

The Commissioner notes that while the Republican Majority remains a challenge, it’s an obstacle that can’t limit Arizona’s climate action.

“We are living in the worst drought in the last 100 years,” she said. The Commissioner's home in Phoenix is currently facing what the U.S. Drought Monitor classifies as “severe drought,” a “D2” rating on the scale of severity that currently affects over half of the state.

At a D2 level, water and feed are inadequate for livestock, and the risk of fire is bizarrely high. Forage dwindles for wildlife. Sturdy Arizona pines begin to lose their needles. Other areas of the state have reached extreme to exceptional drought, levels D3 and D4 respectively, particularly those in the Navajo and Mojave counties. There is not an inch of the state that isn’t classified at the very least as moderately drought-stricken or abnormally dry. The state government didn’t think they would make it to these levels for a number of years, the Commissioner said.

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told the state and its neighbors, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming to figure out ways to use 15 percent less water in the next year, or deal with the restrictions imposed on them. The states are vulnerable to additional cuts, PBS and the Associated Press report, which will particularly target Arizona and California farmers.

“We’ve never had to curtail water the way we are forcing individuals to conserve now,” Commissioner Kennedy said. On the whole, the state likely to be hit hardest with reductions will be Arizona. Drought is only worsened by climate change. It “spurs megadroughts.” Temperatures in Arizona have risen by 2.5 degrees Celcius over the course of the 20th century, climbing more than a degree over the global average. Every degree counts. Higher emissions equate to higher temperatures which equate to drier soil and acrider air which equates to inconsistent rain, dry spells, and eventually full-fledged droughts.

According to a 2015 study led by NASA scientist, Benjamin Cook, between 1950 and 2000, the risk of a 35-year-long drought hitting the American Southwest was less than 12 percent.

If the world fails to enact aggressive action against climate change, that risk inflates by 80 percent. Kennedy says she sees great things coming from our federal government, pointing out the Inflation Reduction Act. But, in terms of Arizona’s battle with drought, she says getting her fellow constituents to understand that the commission needs to change policy for the renewable energy standard is vital, even when they don’t always concur on the realities of climate change.

“When I leave this Earth, I want to leave Arizona in a state of functioning where the environment will not be a harsh place for kids,” she said. The desire to make Arizona livable as the generation of her two-year-old granddaughter comes of age is what inspires Commissioner Kennedy to continue pushing a climate agenda. “That’s what I’m striving for. My children and my children’s children and their children should be able to live in an environment free of toxins and [one] that is technology-friendly [towards] renewable energy,” she said.

In places like Arizona, the envelope has to keep moving forward even if successes are baby steps. In 2009 and 2010 the Commissioner notes that her state “took five steps forward” but policies today mark “four steps backward.” Subtracted, the state is disadvanced to square one.

Yet, one of the most recent “baby steps” brought a smile to Commissioner Kennedy’s face. “Yesterday, I attended probably one of the most exciting projects taking place here in Phoenix,” she said in an interview with FootPrint Coalition.

The city is in the process of extending its metro lines. They received $2 billion from the federal government to build a walkway and bike path lined with solar panels from the foot of Phoenix’s cacti-covered mountains all the way to the city's downtown. While the project won’t start for another two to three years, the money is there. “To put the project in place is huge for Arizona,” she said, “I can’t wait to see it.”

The Commissioner is taking other baby steps. Currently working with the Department of Transportation and the director’s office to ensure more charging stations for electric vehicles are set up along highways, she notes that there’s “plenty of money out there,” from the federal government, if only it were more accessible. “I didn’t realize until yesterday how much money was out there,” she said.

With all hands on deck, Commissioner Kennedy believes her state has the potential to be the number one exporter of renewables in the area, besting both New Mexico and California.

In June, the Commissioner took a tour of the Navajo Nation in the Northeastern region of Arizona to talk to people about how the state can change the scope of energy, increase renewable policies, and do away with fossil fuel generating.

She came away with the goal of creating what she calls a “Highway of Solar,” replacing the three coal plants in the area. She dreams of it stretching from the Native tribe all the way down highway I-40 and past the canyons of Flagstaff. “I get excited when I talk about stuff like that.”

The Commissioner also dreams of reaching true environmental justice in Arizona, a much larger step that would involve the state no longer being a “dumping ground” for hazardous waste. At one point, she said, Arizona was the disposal of hazardous waste for other states. Accepted by the governor of the time, the waste would be transported to Arizona by way of rail, a dangerous method because not only can explosions happen on those tracks, but the Commissioner says, sometimes the waste was dumped in residential communities.

She and her constituents have worked very hard to ensure this is no longer a reality for Arizonans, but as more instances of hazardous waste occur, such as that of an abandoned nuclear plant between Arizona and Nevada, the Commissioner says the state has to make sure it is not a dumping ground target. An explosion will affect miles and miles of Arizona, said Kennedy.

“We have to figure out a way,” she said, “What do we do to keep the residents of Arizona safe?”

There are going to be naysayers, the Commissioner said of her expansive clean energy goals. “But I’m going to keep doing what I do… you have to keep striving for what is in the best interest of the residents of Arizona.”

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