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.