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Saturday, October 22, 2016

By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The political attack ad that ran recently in Arizona had some familiar hallmarks of the genre, including a greedy villain who hogged sweets for himself and made children cry.

But the bad guy, in this case, wasn’t a fat-cat lobbyist or someone’s political opponent.

He was a solar-energy consumer.

Solar, once almost universally regarded as a virtuous, if perhaps over-hyped, energy alternative, has now grown big enough to have enemies.

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns so far in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

Net metering forms the linchpin of the solar-energy business model. Without it, companies say, solar power would be prohibitively expensive.

The power industry argues that net metering provides an unfair advantage to solar consumers, who don’t pay to maintain the power grid although they draw money from it and rely on it for backup on cloudy days. The more people produce their own electricity through solar, the fewer are left being billed for the transmission lines, substations and computer systems that make up the grid, industry officials say.

“If you are using the grid and benefiting from the grid, you should pay for it,” said David Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, the advocacy arm for the industry. “If you don’t, other customers have to absorb those costs.”

The institute has warned power companies that profits could erode catastrophically if current policies and market trends continue. If electricity companies delay in taking political action, the group warned in a report, “it may be too late to repair the utility business model.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a membership group for conservative state lawmakers, recently drafted model legislation that targeted net metering. The group also helped launch efforts by conservative lawmakers in more than half a dozen states to repeal green energy mandates.

“State governments are starting to wake up,” Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, said in an e-mail. The organization has led the effort to overturn the mandate in Kansas, which requires that 20 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources.

“These green energy mandates are bad policy,” said Hanson, adding that the group was hopeful Kansas would be the first of many dominoes to fall.

The group’s campaign in that state compared the green energy mandate to Obamacare, featuring ominous images of Kathleen Sebelius, the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, who was Kansas’ governor when the state adopted the requirement.

The Kansas Senate voted late last month to repeal the mandate, but solar industry allies in the state House blocked the move.

  • Lynda Groom

    This sounds a lot like the aguments made a couple of decades ago when fledgling young phone companies began to take away a small portion of the market share of the industry. The argument was that these start-ups were not placing telephone poll, hanging line or connecting homes. I would have thought that the power companies would appreciate receiving power into their grid that they did not have to produce. Guess I’m wrong yet again.

  • turtlewoman1039

    This is the same reasoning behind a regional company requesting a rate hike because consumers were making deliberate efforts to conserve. The company argued that they deserved a rate hike to compensate for lost business.
    In this case they are getting power that they did not have to generate, conserving THEIR resources. It seems that maintaining transmission lines should be a lot less expensive that generating power, but likely harder to plead for rate increases due to the ‘rising cost of resources’.

  • Dominick Vila

    Why does the GOP oppose solar, wind, and all alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuels? Because it impacts their bottom line, or the interests of their donors.

    • paulyz

      Why does the Democratic Party & Obama encourage more Illegal Immigration, support Amnesty & more guest workers when Millions more people in the US create tremendous increases in using energy, fossil fuels,create pollution, use up natural resources, especially in the Western States where there are already serious water shortages.

      An Illegal in the US uses MUCH more energy that they would in their home country and many have very high birth rates. This also causes us to explore even more sources of fossil fuel and more dependency on foreign oil.

      Most Conservatives I know would like to increase alternate sources of energy while keeping up with the demand. And the demand from MILLIONS in increased population is a major cause of this.

      • Dominick Vila

        The largest influx of illegal immigrants into the USA occurred in the Reagan and George W. Bush eras. It is now at its lowest level in decades. Moreover, President Obama has an all time record on deportations. So much for encouraging illegal immigration. What he is proposing is changing our immigration laws in a way that ends, or at least reduces, the influx of illegal immigrants regardless of when it peaked.
        When Reagan granted amnesty to 4 million illegal immigrants in 1986 he didn’t solve the problem, he encouraged more to come.
        The solution, in my opinion, lies in granting temporary visas to people willing to work in areas where there is demand for their labor, and fining employers that hire illegal immigrants. No work, no illegal immigration. The problem with that is that most Americans are not interested in doing the kind of work being performed by illegal immigrants, regardless of pay, and our only option would be to import the produce we need. IMHO, granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship is wrong. Regardless of circumstances, they broke our laws and they should not be rewarded for doing so. I believe Sen. McCain’s solution – a guest worker program – is a fairer approach.
        Most Republicans are not in favor of alternative energy development. They support and are doing everything they can to preserve our dependence on fossil fuels.

  • halslater

    A large part of the problem is sloppy thinking. Under net-metering rules the solar owner does not “sell” power to the utility, that is an inaccurate metaphor. Actually it is better to say that they “lend” the surplus energy they create to the utility who sells it to the closest user in return for the same amount of power to be returned to the solar system owner at another time.

    As a solar contractor, I am constantly dealing with the disappointment of prospective buyers who envision installing enough solar to generate a respectable income. It does not work that way and net-metering is pretty much limited to producing the average amount of power you use annually. Eliminating an after-tax utility bill with a full payback on their initial investment in 5 to 10 years is the typical experience.

    The utility companies hostility is only assuring that these same customers will add batteries and “cut the cord” as soon as it is feasible. They could offer to help buy the batteries in return for access to a limited amount of the stored power when the grid needs it. That would require a cooperative attitude which is usually alien to monopoly operators. Conservatives want to rule, not govern.

  • Mark Forsyth

    Any stated concern for the consumer or taxpayer by ALEC or the Kochs is a lie and a hoodwink.Their interest in suppressing solar energy is self interest.Were they so genuinely concerned,would they not also protest the cost to consumer/taxpayers of tax funded oil and gas subsidies for further exploration? Afterall,it would seem that both industries are solvent and profitable enough by now[how long have they been in business?] to fund their own explorations.Anyway,given the cozy,warm relationship of the GOP with the fossil fuel industry,one can be sure come hell or high water and helter skelter that they would find some way to pass exploratory expense on to the consumer as well as they have anything else.
    Hydro-electric power is generally considered to be GREEN and non-polluting.The Black River flows through the city of Watertown,N.Y..The city maintains and runs a hydro-electric dam and power plant on the river.Profits from power production,sold to National Grid,are used to fund the city budget.Nobody,not city,not power company,nor republican or democrat is complaining about that.
    Though I am no Goldwater fan,it is good to see a republican stand up to the jerks.

  • mamasnothappy1

    If ALEC has anything to do with something, you can be sure that it is against the people. They are a dangerous group, paid for by corporations as a faux Congress that decides what will or will not be done in the Real Congress. I have asked for this group to be investigated and when they tried, the corporate interests flooded the media with lies. If targeting immoral non-profits, supported by corporate interest is illegal, I suppose we should just give up this country to the CEO’s. The United Corporations of America.

  • johninPCFL

    Disruptive technologies always get government support before breaking into the markets. The telephone and electrical distribution companies were declared “monopolies”, and both received government subsidies for operation (that all taxpayers paid for whether they had phone and power service or not) and got property to build out using eminent domain foreclosures. Railroads were declared necessary for the prosperity of the USA and received subsidies and property. Oil pipelines displaced railroads, and you guessed it, got subsidies and property.
    So now we have the next disruptive technology on the scene and the one-foot-in-the-past GOP doesn’t see why the same processes and procedures that have been followed for centuries (literally) should be followed today. Well, the short answer, is that those processes have been the roadmap that the USA used to become the world’s leader in technologies and modernization.

  • Kansan

    The Koch brothers control ALEC as well. They were the ones who covertly funded the California initiative. In Kansas, they got their scam through the state senate because two years ago, they targeted eight moderate Republicans in the senate and were able to get rid of seven of them. They represent the rule of the oligarchs.

  • kingartie1

    It’s kind of amazing a conservative could say this sincerely, with a straight face:

    “If you are using the grid and benefiting from the grid, you should pay for it,” said David Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, the advocacy arm for the industry. “If you don’t, other customers have to absorb those costs.”

    Where was this rationale when his ilk of corrupt and two-faced knuckleheads was excoriating ACA/Obamacare? Getting as many people as possible on to the plans to spread the risk and pay for everyone has been at the very core of a national health insurance from the very start. ACA was predicated on the very same principle this clown is espousing. It’s infuriating how they pick and choose the ideologies and methodologies to suit their purposes, and pathologically see no contradiction.

    Furthermore, by trying to kill solar, these scumbag troglodyte Koch suckers ARE LEADING THE ENTIRE NATION IN EXACTLY THE WRONG DIRECTION. Saving public utilities infrastructure and profit from the trash pile is just half of the puzzle. The article doesn’t mention the other half: with constantly growing energy demands, less solar power means more coal and more nuclear will be required. These a**holes–big energy, big coal, big nuclear, and their pimps in state and federal congress–could hardly care less about the local, state, national or global environmental ramifications of that. You, we, all of us will be sacrificed if necessary for their ignorant, half-blind corruption and systemic inability to prepare or evolve their capital. They must continue to make money, even if it brings on a mega-holocaust. That’s the level of mentality and ethics we’re dealing with here.