SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In conservative politics, solar power is often dismissed as an affectation, part of a liberal agenda to funnel money to “solar cronies” of the Obama administration and further the “global warming hoax.”
So one would not expect to see Barry Goldwater Jr., the very picture of modern conservatism and son of the 1964 Republican nominee for president, arguing passionately on behalf of solar energy customers. But there he was last fall, very publicly opposing a push by Arizona’s biggest utility to charge as much as $100 a month to people who put solar panels on their roofs.
The utilities, backed by conservative business interests, argue that solar users who have lower power bills because of government subsidies are not paying their fair share to maintain the power grid. Goldwater and other advocates have struck back by calling the proposed fees a “solar tax,” and have pushed their message in ads on Fox News and the Drudge Report.
Similar conflicts are going on in California and Colorado, with many more to come. And as the issue pops up, conservatives are even joining forces with environmental groups. In Georgia, a Tea Party activist and the Sierra Club have formed a “Green Tea Coalition.”
As a result, solar power is quickly becoming one of the fracture lines dividing the conservative movement’s corporate and libertarian sides. The American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, which helps pro-business Republicans across the country write legislation, has successfully urged several states to fight federal mandates for adopting renewable energy like solar power. This month, it published a resolution calling for states to “require that everyone who uses the grid helps pay to maintain it and to keep it operating reliably at all times.”
To Goldwater, the true conservative path lies elsewhere. “Utilities are working off of a business plan that’s 100 years old,” he said in an interview, “kind of like the typewriter and the bookstore.” On the website for his campaign, Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed, Goldwater, a former congressman, says, “Republicans want the freedom to make the best choice.”
He says conservatives are the original environmentalists, especially in the West. “They came out here and fell in love with the land,” he said, and added that his father used to tell him, “There’s more decency in one pine tree than you’ll find in most people.”
Tom Morrissey, a former state Republican Party chairman in Arizona who was embraced by the state’s Tea Party groups, called the party’s national leaders “knuckleheads” on this issue. Domestically produced energy is a national security issue, he said, adding, “If we can keep one dollar from going to people who are killing our kids in Afghanistan, it’s a good thing – and I feel that’s what solar energy does.”
He and others consider the utilities to be regulated monopolies whose rates are set by bureaucrats – the opposite of a free-market economy. In Georgia, Debbie Dooley, the national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots and a co-founder of the Green Tea Coalition, said the fact that some conservatives denounced the favorable treatment that solar power got from the federal government was immaterial.
“They neglect to mention billions of dollars that the fossil-fuel industries have received,” she said. “They cherry-pick their principles.”
Seth Gunning, an organizer in Georgia with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign who teamed up with Dooley, said that although the two groups’ ideals differed, “we can find common ground.”
Dooley said she was working with pro-solar activists in Colorado, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Texas. “It’s spreading,” she said. “People respond to free-market energy.”
She said that in the work with Gunning and other activists on the left, everyone tried to keep things civil.
“We just don’t talk about Obamacare,” she said.
Sometimes she will call Gunning a tree-hugger. Her liberal partners “call me a ‘right-wing radical.’ But we’ll joke about it,” Dooley said. “We’re on each other’s Christmas card list.”
In Hawaii, where high electricity costs have led to enormous private investment in rooftop solar panels, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican, in cooperation with the local Sierra Club chapter, has been battling Hawaiian Electric over policies that she says discourage adoption of solar power. Like other utilities, Hawaiian Electric has argued that the boon in solar power has put a strain on the grid and could even cause safety problems.
The fight in Arizona led to a vote in November that allowed both sides to claim victory. The all-Republican commission that regulates utilities voted for an average fee of $5 per month, much lower than the original request from the utility, but it accepted the utilities’ argument that solar subsidies are inappropriately disrupting their bottom line.
In many states, the conflict focuses on so-called net metering subsidies that utilities give rooftop solar owners for the excess energy they feed back onto the grid – an important incentive for consumers to adopt solar power. As solar power has boomed, the companies have argued that customers who put solar panels on their roofs might be shifting the cost of maintaining the energy grid to non-solar ratepayers.
In any case, the rise of solar, like other forms of independent power generation, has caused economic headaches for the industry.
Lisa Wood, executive director of the Edison Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington sponsored by investor-owned utilities, argued that for the typical residential customer, the cost of making the electricity accounted for only about 45 percent of the bill. Most of the rest was distribution, transmission and maintenance of equipment that might be called on for only part of the year, when demand was high. Her argument that rooftop solar users shift costs to other ratepayers pits homeowners against apartment dwellers and those who do not have the kind of credit rating that the solar companies like to do business with.
David Leeper, an electrical engineer and solar rooftop user in Phoenix, Ariz., ridiculed the power industry’s arguments as “high-tech chutzpah.” Leeper, a Republican who cites his core values as “limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility,” said the notion that he was some kind of free rider made him wonder whether he should owe the utility money if he conserved energy by using his air conditioner more sparingly. “Does that mean I took money from them?”
He acknowledged, however, that he was satisfied with the regulators’ vote for a small monthly charge, since he needs the power grid to reliably provide power in the evenings or when clouds pass across the face of the sun.
“I owe you guys something for being there when I need you,” he said. “That’s the fee for backup service.”