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Blocking the Sun:12 Utilities and Fossil Fuel Interests That Are Undermining American Solar Power
by Gideon Weissman, Frontier Group and Bret Fanshaw, Environment America
Solar power is clean, affordable and popular with the American people. Since 2010, America’s solar energy capacity has grown more than four-fold, generating increasing amounts of clean energy at increasingly affordable prices.
America’s solar progress is largely the result of bold, forward-thinking public policies that have created a strong solar industry while putting solar energy within the financial reach of millions more Americans.
Behind the scenes, however, electric utilities, fossil fuel interests and powerful industry front groups have begun chipping away at the key policies that have put solar energy on the map in the United States – often in the face of strong objections from a supportive public.
This report documents 12 fossil fuel backed groups and electric utilities that are running some of the most aggressive campaigns to slow the growth of solar energy in the United States. Citizens and policy-makers must be aware of the tools self-interested parties are using to undermine solar energy across America – and redouble their commitment to strong policies that move the nation toward a clean energy future.
A national network of utility interest groups and fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks is providing funding, model legislation and political cover for anti-solar campaigns across the country.
The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group that represents U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, launched the current wave of anti-solar advocacy with a 2012 conference warning utilities of the challenges solar energy posed to their traditional profit centers. Since then, EEI has worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on model legislation to repeal state renewable electricity standards and ran an anti-solar public relations campaign in Arizona.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provides utility and fossil fuel interests with access to state legislatures, and its anti-net metering policy resolution has inspired legislation in states like Washington and Utah.
The Koch brothers have provided funding to the national fight against solar by funneling tens of millions of dollars through a network of opaque nonprofits. One Koch front group, 60 Plus, ran a TV and internet anti-net metering campaign in Arizona. The Koch-funded campaign organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) carries out anti-solar energy organizing efforts. In Florida and Georgia, AFP has run misinformation campaigns against net metering and other solar policies.
The Heartland Institute, a think tank with backing from the fossil fuel industry, helped draft the language for ALEC’s “Electricity Freedom Act,” and has spread misleading information about the impacts of solar energy.
The Consumer Energy Alliance is a Houston-based front group for the fossil fuel industry, representing fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell Oil. In Wisconsin in 2013, CEA submitted 2,500 dubious signatures in support of a utility rate case to increase costs for solar customers.
At the state level, electric utilities have used the support provided by national anti-solar interests, as well as their own ample resources, to attack key solar energy policies.
As part of its campaign to discourage rooftop solar power, Arizona Public Service, the biggest utility in Arizona, has funneled money through nonprofit groups in order to fund anti-net metering advertisements and has been accused of improperly cultivating influence with the state commission that regulates utilities.
Duke Energy, the largest utility in the U.S., has positioned itself through investments in utility-scale solar plants to be seen as a champion of solar energy – all while spending millions on campaign contributions to keep anti-solar politicians in office in Florida and lobbying against third party solar agreements in North Carolina.
American Electric Power (AEP) has backed anti-solar campaigns in states including Ohio and West Virginia. In West Virginia, AEP successfully lobbied for a bill to limit the net metering cap to 3 percent of utility peak demand.
In Utah and Nevada, subsidiaries of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy are running active campaigns to halt the growth of solar power. In Nevada, subsidiary NV Energy has lobbied to prevent the raising of Nevada’s net metering cap. With Nevada solar power on track to reach the cap limit in early 2016, a stagnant cap could damage the state solar power industry.
The Salt River Project, a public utility in Arizona, passed perhaps the most damaging anti-solar provision in the country: a demand charge for solar customers that will increase utility bills by an average of $50 per month, which has all but killed the growth of rooftop solar in the utility’s territory. The passage of the fee was based in part on an internal SRP analysis that was criticized for failing to account for solar energy’s value to the grid and to the environment.
In Ohio, FirstEnergy led the fight to make Ohio the first state in the country to freeze its renewable energy standard – resulting in annual private investment in Ohio solar energy dropping by more than $100 million. FirstEnergy has also sustained a series of regulatory attacks against Ohio net metering policy.
We Energies, Wisconsin’s largest utility, has submitted a nearly continuous stream of proposals to the Wisconsin Public Services Commission (PSC) to halt the growth of solar, including proposals to limit net metering and to impose surcharges on solar owners.
In mid-2015, at least 21 states had either ongoing or recently resolved proceedings around policies to slow the growth of solar energy, primarily in the form of new limitations to net metering or new charges to make rooftop solar power less economically viable. State decision-makers should resist utility and fossil fuel industry influence, and reject policies like:
- Restrictions or unfair caps on net metering;
- Discriminatory surcharges or tariffs for solar customers;
- Unnecessary regulatory burdens on solar energy; and
- Rollbacks of renewable electricity standards.
In addition, state leaders can do more to encourage solar energy’s growth. They should embrace ambitious goals for solar energy and adopt policies that will help meet them, including:
- Considering the benefits to the grid, all ratepayers and society of distributed solar power in any ratemaking or policy decisions about solar;
- Implementing strong net metering and interconnection standards, which enable many customers to meet their own electricity needs with solar power;
- Encouraging community shared solar projects and virtual net metering, which can expand solar access to more customers;
- Enacting or expanding solar or distributed renewable carve-outs and renewable electricity standards;
- Allowing companies other than utilities to sell or lease solar to residents and businesses;
- Making smart investments to move toward a more intelligent electric grid that will enable distributed sources of energy such as solar power play a larger role; and
- Utilizing solar energy wherever possible on government buildings and properties.
Solar power should also play a significant role in states’ plans to meet or exceed the requirements of the Clean Power Plan.