Arizonans Threatened by California's Solar Billionaires

Solar parking at Arizona State University | Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The looming war between old-school utilities and rooftop solar seems to be developing a battlefront in Arizona, and "California billionaires" are the new villains. At issue is the conflict over so-called "net metering" policies, under which property owners with rooftop solar can run their electric meters backwards and zero out their monthly bills.

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Net metering has its good points and its less-good points as an incentive to rooftop solar. Since property owners can only see financial return to the extent that they offset their own power consumption, that puts a ceiling on the amount of rooftop solar it makes sense to install. Once you roll your electric bill down to zero for the month, you're essentially giving your local utility free power every time the sun shines.

By contrast, other programs such as feed-in tariffs, which take the electric meter out of the loop and pay for each kilowatt-hour of power a solar panel generates, make it profitable for property owners to install as much solar as they can afford.

Nonetheless, utilities across the country are fighting net metering to varying degrees. As we've mentioned here before at ReWire, California's investor-owned utilities have been claiming that net-metered solar customers who zero out their bills are using the grid for power at night without paying for the privilege, forcing the utiilities to burden their remaining ratepayers wiith extra costs. Advocacy groups like Vote Solar challenge that claim, pointing out that rooftop solar allows utilities to meet peak demand without new investments in gas-fired power plants, as well as cutting down on the need for new ratepayer-funded transmission.

That battle has been pitched enough in California, where the state is firmly in favor of maximizing its solar capacity. (The California Public Utilities Commission is conducting a study of the costs and benefits of net metering to ratepayers, and both sides are eagerly awaiting that study, expected later this year.)

But in Arizona, where the state agencies are actually afraid of their citizens' sensible interest in renewable energy, that battle seems to have developed a new ground zero. On one side is the state's largest power company, with the somewhat Orwellian name Arizona Public Service Company (APS). On the other side are not only Arizonans who'd like to cut down their utility bills by installing solar panels, but the solar leasing companies who want to help them -- for a price. APS, like San Diego Gas & Electric in California last year, wants changes in the state's net metering rules that would allow it to make more money off its solar customers. And an ad spot that's been running on local stations summarizes the utility's side of the issue in a manner that would make the most ardent fan of Fox News proud, by linking leasing firms SolarCity and SunRun to Solyndra and the Obama administration. Here's the video:

Despite the tone, and the language on the companion website that sings the praises of APS, the utility claims it had nothing to do with the hit pieces. Instead, the piece was funded and produced by the Virginia-based ultraconservative group the 60 Plus Association.

60 Plus isn't just involved in opposing renewable energy standards. They're supportive of the gun manufacturers lobby and attempts to roll back health care reform. They're one of the big backers of former President Bush's ill-fated attempt to privatize Social Security. And they're organizational members of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a climate change denialist project of the Koch-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute.

APS disavows any work on the video, but the company told GreenTech Media's Herman Trabish that they approved of 60 Plus Association's views and wished to subscribe to their newsletter:

"APS had nothing to do with the making of or the content of the video," said APS spokesperson Jenna Shaver, "but we were aware 60-Plus was going to engage in the discussion and we welcome their support."

As you might expect, a group that backed gutting Social Security doesn't necessarily have the support of mainstream seniors. As it turns out, conservative senior citizens are not precisely on APS's side in this fight. Something about the way rooftop solar allows people to declare energy independence while cutting down on cash outlay seems to appeal to the libertarian streak in Arizona's older population. A group leading the fight for net metering in the state, "Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed" (TUSK), was founded by Former U.S. Representative Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the conservative icon and a vocal critic of APS. TUSK's PR person once handled publicity for notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Left-wing California hippies these solar activists are not.

And since Arizona's older conservatives have a considerable amount of political clout in the state, it's clear that attack ads like the one above are intended as damage control. APS is vulnerable to criticism like that leveled at the company by Goldwater in the Op-Ed linked above, in which he says:

Rather than innovate or find ways to profit from solar power, APS decries the solar industry and opines that its revenue is heading downward. That's not the solar industry's problem. That's not the ratepayers' problem. That's a problem for APS shareholders, and that must not be our state's concern. Instead of trying to fix the problem, APS is trying to fix the game. It's looking to rig the system so the utility doesn't have to pay fair market value for the excess electricity that rooftop solar customers send back to the grid.

The issue is heating up in the Arizona summer, and APS does have its allies. An article appearing Thursday in the Phoenix New Times, almost as palpably written with the complete approval of the utility's PR office as was the 60 Plus attack ad. Reporter Ray Stern, usually assigned to the crime beat, essentially repeats APS' allegations as fact, obliquely mentioning studies showing that net metering benefits non-solar customers, but not deigning to provide examples, either to the Crossborder Energy study funded by Vote Solar, or to this fascinating 2012 report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council that completely debunks APS' claims on net metering's costs to its non-solar ratepayers. (Start on Page 7 for that section.)

Another omission: of the 4,800 words in the New Times piece, just 37 mention the whole reason for getting Arizonans off coal and onto solar: climate change. Given that APS is aligning itself with Climate Change Denialism in trying to weasel out of the state's modest net metering goals, that omission seems rather derelict. The state is more vulnerable than most to the inevitable effects of Energy Industry business as usual. You'd think the press would center that issue a little bit more in a discussion of a technology that might actually make it possible to survive in Phoenix in 40 years.

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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Thanks for the plug, I guess. Allowed to retort:

Your analysis has two shameful components. The first is the ad hominem attacks, ie, the "crime beat" quip, (those who click on the hotlink you provided there will see that you exaggerated for effect), and your prediction that Phoenix may not survive after 40 years. As a desert lover and longtime Phoenix resident, I cant help but chuckle at this sort of lack of faith in the ability of desert dwellers to overcome problems.

Couple other things: For my article on net metering, I looked at what all the parties were saying and presented my best conclusions to readers. The fact that you disagree with my take does not mean I am simply regurgitating APS' propaganda, as you suggest. You have has your doubts about solar power's worth in the desert, yourself, as your 2010 article about solar's drawbacks shows. Here is the last sentence of that article by you: "Given the permanent damage to an ancient, irreplaceable ecosystem that would result from industrial energy development in desert wildlands, it’s time we stopped calling such development 'renewable energy.'" Gee, did APS help you write that? Sheesh.

When you write an article on net metering, you can put all you want in there about climate change. Yes, I'm skeptical solar power in its current form will save the world from climate change. Of course, you and anyone who wants to argue that 50-100 years from now everyone will be using a form of solar power instead of something else are free to use their crystal balls as they like. As for the current epoch, perhaps you missed the story from a few weeks ago about the Carnegie Mellon study that shows how if we care about using solar to help with global warming, the southwest is not the best place to subsidize the most solar installations because the best bang for the buck, by far, in terms of co2 reduction by solar, is to be had in the Midwest and east coast.

Finally, you omitted interesting facts in your commentary about Jason Rose and Barry Goldwater Jr's involvement. Rose's wife is a lawyer who represents solar firms. Goldwater Jr is on the board of the conservative Goldwater Institute, which fought Arizona's renewable energy standard in court, (unsuccessfully). I tried repeatedly to talk to Goldwater Jr in part to ask how he voted as board member on the position and legal bills in the fight against renewable energy, and he refused to say how he voted (or call me back at all). If Goldwater Inst had been successful in beating down the REST, the debate over net metering would be moot.

Ray

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I had a nice, long retort to Clarke's inaccurate diatribe posted here. For some reason, it's been taken down. Coward or computer glitch?

Ray

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After my July 22 comment, the July 13 comment went back up. Thanks, guys.

Ray