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:

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:

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.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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