Arizona Solar Battle Crosses State Lines

Video still from APS front group's anti-rooftop solar campaign | Photo: AZ Solar Facts/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Last month Arizona's largest power company admitted it had quietly been funding ultraconservative groups opposed to rooftop solar. Now, a solar advocacy group is pressing a national utility trade association to disavow what it calls the utility's "underhanded behavior," and asking the national group to divulge whether it's engaged in similar political spending.

The Arizona Public Service Company (APS) admitted recently that it had funneled at least $9 million to out-of-state groups that then used the money to campaign for reduced incentives for rooftop solar in Arizona. For several months before the admission, APS had maintained that its funding of the groups and their opposition to rooftop solar was merely a coincidence.

The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), an association of solar companies involved in the distributed generation market, urged the national utility association the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) to distance itself from APS's stealth PR tactics. That may be asking a lot, as it turns out EEI is pitching its own anti-solar ads in Arizona.

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According to the Arizona Capitol Times, EEI has been pitching its own anti-rooftop solar political ads to Arizona press.

At issue is the increasingly popular practice of Net Energy Metering, in which owners of solar panels that produce more power than they use can sell that power to their local utility by running their electric meter backward, thus paying only for their "net" energy use. The practice has worked as an incentive to promote explosive growth in rooftop solar, but utility companies complain that net metering customers end up paying little or nothing to help maintain the power grid, shifting those costs onto non-solar ratepayers.

That conflict has shown up in more places than just Arizona: California's legislature just passed a law that directs the state's Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to come up with a way for utilities to charge their solar customers for using the grid. That measure is predictably controversial. In Arizona, APS and its allies are urging that state's equivalent to the CPUC, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), to reduce the amount utilities must pay for each kilowatt-hour of rooftop solar power property owners feed into its grid.

The ACC's staff has recommended against a couple of APS's suggestions, and is pushing a solution that may well resemble one the CPUC is considering -- a monthly charge to cover the costs of running the grid, either fixed at around $2.75 a month or fees that rise with the size of the solar array.

Until the ACC makes its decision, which may or may not reflect the recommendations of its staff, the utility PR campaign continues to ramp up. APS's non-profit partners, chief among them the Virginia-based right wing lobbyist group "60-Plus," have attempted to use allegations of unfairness to non-solar ratepayers in a Fox-News-flavored PR blitz that seems not to have faltered in the wake of APS's admission that it's been bankrolling the cvampaign. Here's a recent excample from 60 Plus' front group AZ Solar Facts:

APS claims that solar panel owners have cost their non-solar neighbors $18 million in deflected costs. That's a controversial allegation: solar groups counter that rooftop solar also saves non-solar ratepayers from having to fork out for new transmission lines and centralized power generation.

But here's one fact about that $18 million figure that can't be denied: it's just twice what APS admits to having plowed into the coffers of its anti net-metering campaign allies over the summer. APS spent more than $9 million on the campaign in the third quarter of 2013, or about $9 for every APS ratepayer. That money was apparently funneled to 60 Plus and other groups under the direction of Koch Brothers crony Sean Noble, to whom TASC refers as a "dark money maestro."

In late October, the Arizona chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association asked the ACC to investigate whether APS has improperly used any ratepayer money in its campaign. TASC joined in that call a few days later. "Arizonans deserve to know whether ratepayer money is being used by APS to kill rooftop solar," said TASC's President Bryan Miller. "The fact that APS repeatedly lied to the public, including its regulators, calls for a thorough investigation."

Now, the fact that a national solar group is calling a national utility group on the carpet over Arizona net metering issue more or less guarantees that the solar incentives issue will heat up nationwide. "EEI should give a firm 'yes' or 'no' on their own use of dark money, and whether or not they endorse APS' tactics," said Miller.

It may be a rhetorical question, but EEI's response should be interesting.

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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