Who is working against distributed solar: National actors

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A host of utilities across the United States have worked with anti-solar groups to undermine pro-solar policies, with varying degrees of success.

In light of these efforts, state legislators, utility oversight boards, and others should resist efforts by utilities and their special interest supporters aimed at limiting the spread of rooftop solar. So asserts a new report released by Environment America, the Frontier Group, and the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

According to the report, many of the nation’s electric utilities as well as affiliated lobbying groups perceive solar power–and  distributed generation more broadly–as a threat to their business models and profits.

This explains in part why so many state-level battles are fought over issues such as net metering, fixed charges, demand charges, and rate changes, even in areas served by utilities that have publicly committed to procuring and installing utility-scale solar. Objections include arguments that distributed assets are not owned by the utility, do not factor into their profit models, and enable customers to  consume large portions of their energy need without buying it from the grid while also earning compensation from the utility for excess generation.

As a part of the anti-solar offensive, the report said that a national network of well-funded, largely pro-fossil-fuel lobbying groups have worked with utilities to limit the potential of non-utility-owned renewable generation. Here are highlights of what the report found.

EEI

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) has worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to create model legislation to attack net metering at the state level. As the trade group that represents U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, EEI has trained utility executives in how to run advocacy campaigns and has consistently been a major donor to national Congressional candidates and parties, according to the report.

See the source image
A graphic from EEI’s “Disruptive Challenges” report

EEI has long been a solar energy opponent, the report said. That opposition began with EEI’s 2013 “Disruptive Challenges” report, which warned of solar’s potential to threaten the utility business model, and net metering’s potential to adversely impact utility investors.

In December 2019, EEI held a weeklong political “bootcamp” for utility executives and government affairs representatives. The report said that during the session, case studies of successful anti clean-energy campaigns were used to train attendees on how to run their campaigns, while also repeatedly pressing on how net metering, renewable energy standards, and other pro-solar policies represented ongoing threats.

The group maintains a Political Action Committee which has spent over $700,000 in each national election cycle since 2010 to advance organizational issue priorities, the report said.

CEA

Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a group which purports to be the “leading voice for sensible energy and environmental policies for consumers,” seems to be anything but that, according to the report. The group’s members (besides state and local Chambers of Commerce and other business groups) include utility and fossil fuel companies, like Ameren Missouri, the American Gas Association, Dominion Energy, the Edison Electric Institute, Florida Power & Light, Georgia Power, the Indiana Energy Association, British Petroleum, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell Oil.

In the past, CEA has supported anti-solar legislation, like Florida’s failed Amendment 1 in 2016. The group has been referred to by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse as a “fake consumer group” created by fossil fuel lobbyists.

See the source image
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse Image: Wikimedia Commons

The group has also been accused of misrepresenting petition signatures it has collected, and for generating template emails supposedly from citizens pressing for specific legislative initiatives.

ALEC

Described by the report’s authors as a “corporate bill mill,” the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nationwide organization that gives fossil fuel and utility industry lobbyists direct access to state lawmakers. The report said that98% of the organization’s budget comes from outside donors, corporations, and corporate foundations.

ALEC has been used in the past as a vehicle for utilities and corporations to collaborate on anti-renewable legislation templates, which are then sent to ALEC-member state-level legislators, who introduce the legislation in their respective lawmaking body. The report asserts that the ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force has authored and introduced model bills intended to get rid of or heavily compromise net metering programs.

Recently, a number of the group’s high-profile corporate members, including Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Wal Mart – all companies that have invested in solar and renewable energy at large – have cut ties with ALEC, citing the group’s effort to work against measures that would combat climate change.

Koch Industries

Koch Industries began as an oil extraction and refining company, and has been consistent in pursuing cuts to environmental regulation. One of the company’s associated groups, Americans for Prosperity, has been used, according to the report, to funnel money to attack solar power, along with other environmental and energy initiatives. The group is active in 38 states and has fought against solar in Arizona, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington.

A 2016 infographic urging voters against the Koch-backed campaign for Amendment 1 Image: solarlove.org

A separate Koch-backed group donated at least $1 million to promote Florida’s Amendment 1, according to the report. That amendment failed to pass in 2016. Amendment 1 would have given utilities free rein to charge solar customers more in fees and taxes to offset an alleged cost-shift to non-solar customers. The campaign for Amendment 1 raised more than $20 million in donations. The measure ultimately failed to reach the 60% of the vote that it needed to pass.

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Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, where we’ll be taking a look at some of the state-specific campaigns that have attempted to limit rooftop solar’s potential and gut net metering programs.

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