News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Arizona Utility Admits it Funded Anti-Net-Metering Groups

Solar panels on a cohousing development in Tucson | Photo: David Crummey/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you think the conflict between rooftop solar advocates and big utilities seems heated here in California, you ought to cast a glimpse at our exotic neighbor to the east, Arizona. As ReWire has previously reported, a campaign in Arizona to drastically limit rooftop solar incentives has gotten quite heated in recent weeks.

This week, the story took an interesting turn, as Arizona's largest utility admitted it's been bankrolling some conservative groups' involvement in the issue, which has brought Tea Party-style charged rhetoric to the rooftop solar fray. The groups, along with the utility, want changes that could end up raising solar Arizonans' monthly electric bills by $50 to $100.

Though Arizona Public Service (APS) had long been assumed to be bankrolling a faux-grassroots opposition to net metering in Arizona, the revelation -- after months of terse denials -- is interesting in that it comes just as Arizona regulators prepare to draft a net metering policy for the state.

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One of the groups APS funded, the ultraconservative 60-Plus based in Virginia, has been running ads like this one in Arizona for some time, replete with buzz-phrases designed to score points with the Fox News crowd:

The campaign has a Twitter aspect to it, too, as witness this likewise charged example from 60-plus's Arizona arm "Arizona Solar Facts":

Arizona Solar Facts has encouraged its Twitter followers to petition the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), that state's equivalent to the California Public Utilities Commission, to "reform" net metering rules, by which the group essentially means slashing incentives for rooftop solar:

But Arizona Solar Facts doesn't oppose all solar. For instance, one particular solar project in Arizona was met with the group's raves:

Until recently, APS had admitted it had provided some funding to 60-Plus but maintained the group's support of its position on net metering was mere happy coincidence. According to the Arizona Republic, however, APS recently admitted that it's been paying 60-Plus, along with another conservative group Prosper, to promote the notion of rolling back net metering among Arizonans.

This isn't by any means the first attempt by financial interests to create fake grassroots campaigns -- commonly called "astroturfing" -- in the renewable energy realm. For instance, the American Wind Energy Association adopted a goal of "Work[ing] with [AWEA's] Grassroots team to recruit and activate a 'Wind Army,' identifying state, member and third-party surrogates to spread AWEA messages." That effort was slightly interrupted when materials describing the astroturf campaign from a November 2011 meeting of AWEA's Board of Directors were obtained by activists.

But APS's attempt at astroturfing might just be one of the most blatant, and possibly clumsy. Whether or not it will work remains to be seen. Arizonans with a libertarian streak might be just as likely to respond to alleged imbalances in billing fairness between rooftop solar customers and others by getting in on the net metering gravy train, seeing as that means both energy independence and saving money.

The ACC intends to discuss new net metering rules in November. The Commission's staff recently published its recommendation that the ACC defer any changes until 2016, and allow the current incentive structure to remain in place until then.

In the meantime, at least Arizonans know APS really has put its money where its mouth is.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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