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Blocking the Sun:

Utilities and Fossil Fuel Interests That Are Undermining American Solar Power - 2016 Edition

by Rachel Cross and Gideon Weissman, Frontier Group and Bret Fanshaw, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

Solar power is clean, affordable and popular with the American people. The amount of solar energy installed in the U.S. has quadrupled in the last four years, and the U.S. has enough solar energy installed to power one in 20 American homes.

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 17 fossil fuel backed groups and electric utilities running some of the most aggressive campaigns to slow the growth of solar energy in 12 states, including eight attempts to reduce net metering benefits, seven attempts to create demand charges for customers with solar power, and five efforts to roll back renewable energy standards. 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. A Koch brothers front organization, 60 Plus, also recently spent more than $1 million to support a deceptive, ostensibly pro-solar group in Florida that is working to create new barriers to solar energy ownership.

The Koch-funded campaign organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has carried out anti-solar energy organizing efforts. In Florida and Georgia, AFP has run misinformation campaigns against net metering and other solar policies.

The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) is a Houston-based front group for the fossil fuel industry, representing fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell Oil. In Wisconsin in 2014, 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.

In Florida, Florida Power and Light (FPL), Gulf Power Electric, Tampa Electric Company and Duke Energy, the largest utility in the U.S., spent millions of dollars backing a front group, Consumers for Smart Solar, which was the primary backer of a deceptive ballot initiative that had it passed would have further restricted rooftop solar growth in the state.

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 have run campaigns to halt the growth of solar power. In Nevada, subsidiary NV Energy successfully campaigned for a utility commission ruling that has effectively halted the growth of rooftop solar in NV Energy’s service territory.  

In California, the publicly-owned utility Imperial Irrigation District abruptly ended its net metering program, stunting future solar energy growth and temporarily stranding many of its customers that were in the midst of rooftop solar installations.

Commonwealth Edison, Illinois’ largest utility, has introduced legislation that would create statewide demand charges on its residential customers, a move with the potential to reduce the economic viability of rooftop solar for all of the state’s residents. 

Four major Arizona utilities – the Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service, and sister companies Tucson Electric Power and Unisource – have undertaken extensive campaigns to impose new charges on their solar customers. The Salt River Project implemented a demand charge that has all but killed distributed solar energy growth in its territory. 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. And Unisource and Tucson Electric Power (TEP) have filed requests with state regulators to eliminate net metering and create a solar-specific mandatory demand charge.

In mid-2016, there were at least 84 ongoing policy actions in U.S. states that could impact the growth of solar energy, including through 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:

-          Elimination of, or 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 of distributed solar energy to the grid, to ratepayers and to society in any ratemaking or policy decisions about solar energy;

-          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 to play a larger role; and

-          Utilizing solar energy wherever possible on government buildings and properties.

Policymakers should also uphold our commitment to reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Power Plan, and ensure that solar power plays a major role in in any strategy to reduce global warming pollution.

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