Utility Companies Pull the Plugs on Home Solar Systems
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Utility Companies Pull the Plugs on Home Solar Systems

State Legislatures Roll Back Financial Incentives for Homeowners While Energy Lobbyists Charge D.C.

It takes a tangle of electric utility companies, their lobbyists, politicians and Trump Administration officials to stunt the growth of renewable energy, especially solar power.

And they’re making stunning progress across the nation.

Rooftop solar panel installations, for example, have crumbled under the weight of the lobbying efforts. Compare the soaring growth over the past six years of 900% to a projected decline of 2% this year, according to an article by The New York Times.

Solar power produces enough energy to power nearly 3 million American homes. And last year, the U.S. added a record 15 gigawatts of solar capacity—more than any other energy source, according to the article.

But traditional energy companies have put together a very successful lobbying blitz aimed at removing homeowner incentives to install solar panels, hoping to slow the growth of solar power. Now, nearly every state is reviewing its solar energy policies. Five states have chosen to phase out net metering since 2013: Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Indiana. And other states are considering disincentives for private solar customers, introducing new fees or hiking existing ones.

The homeowner incentives for using solar power mostly come in the form of net metering, a practice that allows customers with solar panels to sell excess power at retail price back to the grid. In many locations, utility companies will combine net metering with bundle distribution costs for electricity. Then solar customers receive a subsidy partially paid by homeowners in their state who do not use solar power. But the lobbyists and energy companies claim that this is unfair to homeowners who don’t want or can’t afford their own installations. Energy companies are not known for caring about the plight of the everyman. This clearly is about their profits and their ability to survive, both short- and long-term.

The prospect of more customers “fully exiting from the grid raises the potential for irreparable damages to revenues and growth,” the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) said four years ago.

Enter the lobbyists.

Electric utilities ranked fifth among all industries for money spent on lobbying so far this year, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. Through mid-May, these lobbyists have spent a total of $32.6 million, according to the Senate Office of Public Records.

The industry’s long-term contribution trends show the electric utilities contributed just shy of $30 million in the 2016 election. That is the highest amount spent in 26 years, and possibly longer—the data from the Federal Election Commission only tracks back to 1990.

Electric utilities poured $12.2 million into the election of Republicans across the board, compared to $6 million for Democrats. If you add in money contributed to the Republican Party and outside spending groups, the amount grows to $16.6 million vs. $10 million to Democrats.

Contributions to Republican senators totaled $3.1 million vs. $1.2 million spent on Democrats. And Republican members of the House received $8.2 million, compared with $3 million received by Democratic Congressional members, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

Lobbyists are spending more than just money in 2017, they are also spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill. So far this year, a look at just the top five lobbying firms for the electric utilities industry, Southern Co, Edison Electric Institute, American Electric Power and NextEra Energy, shows they are currently lobbying nine bills in the House and Senate. And others lobbyists could be targeting additional bills.

Add to the mix Donald Trump’s ethical administration. With some former top energy lobbyists for the utility companies in prominent positions, that only helps the fight against solar on the federal level.

First, there was Trump’s bizarre choice of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Energy Secretary. Perry chose Brian McCormack, former energy lobbyist for EEI, the second-ranked electric utility lobbying firm this year, as his chief of staff. In 2014, McCormack, then an executive at EEI, helped write model legislation to move away from net metering that was adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), one of the conservative nonprofits the Koch brothers funnel money into. ALEC also circulated the model legislation among its network of state legislators.

And in April, Perry commissioned a study to support the dubious claims that renewable energy may be hurting conventional energy sources, like power grids. The study may be available later this month.

Action Box / What You Can Do About It

Contact the Department of Energy by calling 202-586-5000 to insist that the federal government puts more effort toward growing renewable energy sources. Contact Sec. Rick Perry by email, Twitter or Facebook. Contact your representatives and senators and ask them to support renewable energy sources.

Here’s a breakdown of the nine bills the top lobbyists for electric utilities are targeting:

H.R. 1837: 21st Century Energy Workforce Act: Sponsored by Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and cosponsored by Rep. David McKinley (R-W. Va.), the bill would require the Secretary of Energy to establish a pilot competitive grant program for the development of a skilled energy workforce. Bill Status: Introduced.

H.R. 238: Commodity End-User Relief Act: Sponsored by Rep. Michael Conway (R-Texas) and cosponsored by Reps. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and David Scott (D-Ga.), the bill would reauthorize the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to better protect futures customers and provide end users with market certainty. A part of the bill deals with utility entities. Bill Status: Passed the House.

H.R. 338: To Promote a 21st Century Energy and Manufacturing Workforce: Sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (R-Ill.) and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of five Representatives, this bill directs the Department of Energy (DOE) in awarding grants to prioritize education and training for energy and manufacturing jobs. Bill Status: Passed the House.

H.R. 723: Energy Savings Through Public-Private Partnerships Act of 2017: Sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) with seven cosponsors – the majority Democrats – this bill seeks to amend the National Energy Conservation Policy Act (NECPA) to encourage the increased use of performance contracting in Federal facilities, and for other purposes. NECPA, passed in 1978, sought to reduce the growth in demand for energy and to conserve nonrenewable energy resources produced in the U.S. It has been amended several times by almost every president since President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into office.  Bill Status: Introduced.

H.R. 1443: Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act: Introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) with five Democratic cosponsors, this bill looks to revise a variety of programs to encourage energy efficiency in buildings, industry, the federal government and certain appliances. Bill Status: Introduced.

H.R. 2479: Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act: Introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and cosponsored by 23 House Democrats, this bill looks to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure, including modernizing the electric grid and energy supply infrastructure. Bill Status: Introduced.

S.239: Energy Savings Through Public-Private Partnerships Act of 2017: Introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and cosponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), this bill is similar to the one introduced in Congress by the same name. It states that current law requires federal facility energy managers to evaluate and identify energy and water-efficiency measures for federal facilities, but agencies are not required to actually implement the measures. This bill would require agencies to implement them if they are cost-effective. Bill Status: Introduced

S.385: Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act: Introduced by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) with 10 cosponsors – seven of them Democrats – this bill is similar to the above-mentioned House bill H.R. 1443. It aims to revise programs to encourage energy efficiency in buildings, industry, the federal government and certain appliances. Bill Status: Introduced.

S.79: Securing Energy Infrastructure Act: Introduced by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) with four cosponsors, Senators James Risch (R-Idaho), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), this bill provides for the establishment of a two-year pilot program within the DOE’s national laboratories to identify security vulnerabilities of certain entities in the energy sector. Bill Status: Introduced.

July 12, 2017