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Solar Power’s New Allies Named Bubba and Goldwater

At Clean Edge, we’ve said for years that clean energy and energy efficiency should not be partisan issues — that benefits like quality American jobs, reduced dependence on imported oil, leadership in technology innovation, and cleaner air and water should appeal across the political spectrum.

In reality, of course, this has not generally been the case in the U.S. at the federal level, with most debates about energy sources falling along the same blue and red lines as most other issues (remember “Drill, Baby, Drill”?). There are a few notable exceptions, but bipartisan collaborations seem vastly outnumbered by the typical headlines about right-wing opposition to a clean-energy economy, including the current eye-roller about GOP House members fighting new efficiency standards for ceiling fans.

All this makes recent developments at the state level all the more noteworthy. In Georgia and Arizona — two states that are among the most conservative bastions in the U.S. — solar power is finding some interesting new allies in the fight against large utilities that want to put the brakes on solar development.

Last month, the all-Republican Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to order the state’s largest utility, Georgia Power, to add 525 MW of new solar generation (425 MW of utility scale and 100 MW of distributed) into its energy mix by 2016. Georgia Power, a unit of energy giant Southern Co., had previously submitted plans to the PSC calling for no new solar for the next 20 years. Georgia had just over 20 MW of solar installed statewide by the end of last year, according to the Clean Edge 2013 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index. The author of the PSC motion was veteran commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., a former state representative from tiny Clarkesville, Georgia, 85 miles northwest of Atlanta near the South Carolina border. In other words, Portlandia it ain’t. 

Not surprisingly, McDonald and his supporters in the 3-2 vote didn’t talk about greenhouse gas emissions or sustainability — unless you mean the sustainability of stable electricity rates. Rather, solar power — especially in the state with the fifth-best solar resource in the nation — will be a strong economic hedge against the volatility of coal and natural gas prices. "We don't know what tomorrow is going to be with coal,” said McDonald. “We don't know what tomorrow is going to be with natural gas...but we know the sun will be shining." Fellow commissioner Tim Echols went a step further explaining his pro-solar vote, with a political dig at President Obama: “When the president finishes his war on coal, he'll come after fracking, and gas prices will surely go up. We have to be ready."

Echols’ quote may surprise some in the clean energy and environmental world, but he sums up a picture of the system working exactly as it should. If federal regulation causes the externalities of fossil fuel extraction and use to be priced in fairly, market players (utility regulators in this case) will make decisions in response to those signals and represent the best interest of their constituents. Georgia’s regulators have decided that a vast increase in their state’s use of sun-generated electricity is in their ratepayers’ best interests, and I certainly agree.

And so do, in fact, some members of Tea Party organizations in Georgia. They’re especially (and rightfully) opposed to the state’s arcane 1973 law prohibiting solar leases and power purchase agreements with anyone but the utility, preventing the financing models that have made SolarCity, SunRun, Sungevity, and other providers so successful in residential and small commercial markets around the country. “The free market has been one of the founding principles of the Tea Party since it began,” Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley told Climate Progress, “and a monopoly is not a free market.” 

That brings us to the solar net-metering debates raging in states across the U.S., and none more heatedly than in Arizona. Arizona Public Service (APS), that state’s largest utility, last month filed a proposal with regulators that would slap a “rate tariff” on distributed solar systems. Solar advocates believe this would significantly cut the benefits of net metering, which requires utilities to credit distributed solar owners for the electrons they generate. 

Along with Arizona’s strong community of environmental and clean-energy advocates, one leading voice opposing APS is Barry Goldwater Jr., the namesake son of the late senator and 1964 presidential nominee considered one of the fathers of modern conservatism. The 75-year-old Goldwater, who served six terms in Congress himself, is chairman of a group with the feisty name of Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed (TUSK), founded in March to oppose APS’s efforts to roll back net metering. In addition to ads, rallies, and other activities, TUSK hired a Republican polling firm which found that 88 percent of Arizonans — and 76 percent of Republicans — supported net metering.

On TUSK’s web site, Goldwater says, We can't let solar energy — and all the advantages and benefits it provides us — be pushed aside by monopolies wanting to limit energy choice. That's not the conservative way and it's not the American way." 

Like Georgia’s PSC, Arizona’s utility regulators (the Arizona Corporation Commission, or ACC) are elected rather than appointed and thus have party affiliations. As in Georgia, all five commissioners are Republicans. To put it mildly, the ACC hasn’t always been a friend to solar and other clean energy sources in the past, but Arizona is now the leading solar state in the nation in per-capita installed solar capacity (167 Watts per person), according to a recent report from EnvironmentMassachusetts. “Arizona was made for solar energy,” Gov. Jan Brewer, another true-red conservative, said in March; she’s had PV panels on her home since the 1970s. 

U.S. national politics and clean energy has made for a sometimes tough marriage. But with more voices like Bubba McDonald’s and Barry Goldwater’s emerging in support of solar energy, perhaps a new conversation may be starting. One that can soberly debate renewable vs. fossil fuel energy sources on their merits and drawbacks, rather than the knee-jerk partisanship that has so often reigned to date. One with more statements like this one from McDonald, in a blog by veteran Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist Jim Galloway headlined “In Georgia, Solar Power Finds a Respected Place in the GOP Vocabulary”: The sun is “not owned by Georgia Power, it’s not owned by Bubba McDonald, it’s not owned by the Public Service Commission,” said McDonald. “It’s free. And to deprive people of the opportunity to take advantage of technology, to me, is wrong.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lead image: Solar energy via Shutterstock

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