The ideological division that now runs under the Republican party is making itself known with tremors around climate change, and specifically the issue of household solar installation. On one side, energy self-sufficiency, whether for a family or for the nation, is a libertarian’s dream: no more monthly dependence on a non-competitive utility company, no more dependence on foreign oil, with its attendant national security threats.
On the other side, in the spirit of protecting venerable utility and fossil fuel corporations against the threat of green tech, ALEC is drafting model legislation and mobilizing members to attack renewable energy policies, which include renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and more recently, net-metering.
As the Guardian reported in December, ALEC has been hacking away at RPSs in 15 states with the Electricity Freedom Act. The model bill aims to ‘reform, freeze, or repeal their state’s renewable mandate,’ according to documents leaked from an August board meeting in Chicago. If a state has not seen any action from ALEC against their renewable portfolio standard yet, it’s likely because their RPS is not mandatory or sufficiently high to warrant attention.
The Guardian also interviewed John Eick, the director of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force (hello Ag-Gag and EPA attacks), who outlined their anti-net metering position; that “direct generation customers are essentially freeriders on the system,” and that they should be paying for the privilege of generating power outside their utility’s purview.
Net energy metering is a beige phrase that becomes keenly significant to homeowners upon the installation of a residential solar or wind generator. Net metering allows renewable owners to feed their surplus power back into the grid, and to count the energy they generate against the grid energy they use (at night, for example). If a home has a literal net meter installed, the meter will run backwards when the renewable power source is generating, forward when the house is pulling power from the grid. Depending on the state and the utility company, net metering can result in lower bills, or even income.
ALEC (with money flowing in from the Koch brothers, by way of a non-profit shell called the 60 Plus Association and the utility companies that have joined in the net metering fight contend that sending privately generated power into the grid unfairly exploits the utility’s infrastructure, and that as more individuals opt out of the grid, those that remain will see their rates rise. Arizona, with its 18,000 solar-powered households, was the testing ground for this offensive last November. Mohave Electric Cooperative petitioned the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to implement a Net Metering Service Tariff that would, if approved, cost solar households between $50 and $100 a month.
Opponents of Mohave Electric’s proposal that testified at public hearings on November 13th and 14th included solar companies, environmental groups, but also some unusual suspects, including the military group Operation Free. Operation Free, a campaign of the Truman National Security Project, is a “coalition of veterans and national security experts who recognize climate change and energy dependency pose serious threats to US national security,” according to their mission statement. They are active in Arizona, California, and Ohio, where they went head-to-head with ALEC last October in a fight to protect Ohio’s renewable energy standard.
In a letter to the ACC in support of Mohave Electric’s proposal, dated November 14, Grover Norquist described the divisive nature of the solar issue from the bird’s eye-view of an alarmed conservative tactician:
“The debate over net metering reform and solar subsidies, tax credits, and mandates is not unique to Arizona. That is because the rooftop solar industry has attempted to co-opt countless conservative groups in its fight to protect crony capitalism in other states as well. In Georgia, they convinced a local tea party group to support new mandates on solar power generation, which will result in higher costs for a large number of consumers in the state.”
Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a member of ALEC.
After two days of testimony, the ACC voted 3-2 to implement a tariff of $0.0406 per kilowatt hour, which works out to about $5 a month, 1/10th to 1/20th the utility’s asking price. Operation Free celebrated this as a victory, saying in a press release “The reasonable solution reached by the ACC will assess a $5-$7 monthly fee to homeowners with solar, preserving the enormous opportunity for local, secure power in Arizona.”
Angela Navarro, a lawyer with the Charlottesville, Va., office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, followed the proceedings in Arizona with interest. She was heartened that the ACC didn’t succumb to pressure from the utility, saying “we're certainly seeing some of this pushback in our states in the Southeast. Dominion is the largest utility in Virginia; they impose small standby charges on [household solar] customers. They've stated that they'd like to expand those standby charges and so we're certainly cognizant that this may be another battle here in Virginia at some point.”
I asked her if, in practicing environmental law in a red-state region, the SELC had formed any unlikely or unusual alliances, and she, like Norquist, mentioned Georgia’s sweetly named Green Tea Coalition. By Navarro’s account, “they intervened in [Georgia’s] long-range planning docket and said 'we want more solar, we want more opportunities to place solar on the grid through these residential and commercial rooftop solar installations,' and the utility commission down there agreed. Now Georgia Power is required to procure over 700 MW of solar by 2016.” Following this victory, the Green Tea Coalition has turned its sights on repealing a state law that prohibits 3rd party ownership of residential solar.
No wonder Norquist is alarmed. Despite his claim that solar companies misled gullible Tea Partiers into supporting a solar platform, the Green Tea Coalition is nobody’s patsy: their Facebook page, which serves as official website, is rich with straight-from-the-heart eco-libertarian bon mots. An example from March 7th reads:
“Our energy grid is vulnerable to terrorist attacks and smart grids even more so. We need to move away from a centralized structure to a de-centralized structure for national security reasons, but electric monopolies are standing in the way.”
The Green Tea Coalition is also no stranger to intra-party conflict: the International Business Times reports that during the struggle to expand Georgia’s renewable standard, the GTC found themselves facing off with the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. Their formidable foes make this unlikely triumph even more remarkable.
The climate crisis is bigger than the left. Awareness of the growing onslaught of political, meteorological, and quality-of-life problems is dawning on everyone who doesn’t stand to profit from the sale of fossil fuels. And although the public perception of climate activists as left-of-center lingers, some very effective advocacy is coming out of American conservative communities as well. While progressives are studying tactics for persuading their Republican neighbors that climate change is real, groups like Operation Free and the Green Tea Coalition are already implementing strategies. These groups are allied with conservative sympathies, and they’re winning against fossil fuels in bright red states, in the face of Koch money. Their victories deserve every climate activist’s close attention.