NEW YORK — If you go far enough left or right on the American political spectrum, you end up in the same place: trashing utilities for trying to kill the solar-power revolution.
If you’re Al Gore, former Democratic vice-president and climate change activist, you blast Big Power for “using the atmosphere as their sewage infrastructure” to suck up carbon emissions and trying to shut down competition. The industry is waging a “war on solar,” he told investors Monday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York City.
If you’re Debbie Dooley, a national Tea Party activist who says state laws discriminate against residential solar, you tell the same audience that Americans want “energy freedom” and not “government-sanctioned monopolies” that tell consumers where they must buy power.
In back-to-back speeches, the political Odd Couple struck surprisingly similar tones on clean energy’s future, even if Gore dwelled on renewables’ role in avoiding catastrophic global warming while Dooley didn’t use the words “climate change” at all, focusing on consumer choice.
“This is a battle that we will win,” said Dooley, a board member of the National Tea Party Patriots group. “I am literally floored with the response I have been getting from conservatives with the right message.”
Only minutes earlier, Gore told the audience that “we are going to win this struggle and the business community is leading the way.” He cited investments in wind, solar and battery technology as transformational to the energy business in the U.S.
The fact these two forces from opposite ends of the spectrum are coming together reflects a maturing in the environmental debate, with a search on for leaders who can deliver the message to different communities, said Andy Hoffman, director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.
“The issue of climate change has to be framed in a way that it’s salient to people, and it has to come from people they trust,” Hoffman said at the conference. “The Green Tea Party is framing it around freedom. The whole challenge is how we make it something that resonates with people.”
If there’s a consensus forming, it’s still hard to tell in Washington, where the new Republican majority in Congress has vowed to block President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from coal- rich Kentucky, has urged states to refuse to implement proposed rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. McConnell called Obama’s proposal “job-killing and likely illegal,” according to a statement March 31.
Yet public opinion surveys suggest Gore and Dooley may be on to something. Nationally, 77 percent of U.S. adults supported funding research for renewable energy, while 61 percent said utilities should be required to generate some power from clean- energy sources, according to a survey by Yale and Utah State universities released last week.
Those numbers held steady from the Deep South to liberal Massachusetts, said the report, which was based on interviews last year with 13,000 people.
By contrast, opinions on whether global warming is happening were more polarized, with Republican-leaning regions more skeptical than Democratic areas.
Dooley, chairwoman of the Atlanta Tea Party chapter, joined with Democratic-leaning environmental groups two years ago, defeating a Georgia proposal to levy a fee on solar-panel owners for their use of the electric grid.
In Florida, she’s pushing a ballot initiative that would allow individual homeowners and businesses to sell their solar power directly to tenants and neighbors, a right now reserved for electric companies. Utilities have opposed those measures, saying they risk losing income needed to keep the grid stable for all consumers.
Dooley said she doesn’t mention climate change in her arguments to fellow conservatives, since the words can “shut down the conversation.” She’s found big government a much better target.
“Solar equals independence — solar equals freedom,” she said. “Tea Party activists don’t like strong centralized units. There’s nothing more centralized than a utility, than the government telling you what power to buy.”
Gore sounded like he was reading off the same script.
“People want their own opportunity to shape their own future, and renewable energy is part of that,” Gore said. “There is a war on solar with these legacy utilities, and coal companies using their historic political power, campaign contributions and lobbying to pass the most ridiculous laws and tax the people who want to put solar panels on their roof.”
Copyright 2015 Bloomberg
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