Dirty energy's quiet war on solar panels
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Let's say you're thinking about switching to solar at home, but you're concerned about the start-up costs.

What if you received generous federal and state tax credits? That could help!

Better still, what if you discover that during those hot, sunny afternoons — when you're at work and hardly using any energy at home — you can sell the excess energy your solar panels generate back to the grid at the full residential retail rate?

This practice, called “net metering,” helps cut utility bills and shortens the payback period for solar installation costs. That sweetens the deal even more.

But what if you don’t own a home, or can't afford solar panels?

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In some states, you still have options, such as shared solar programs. These allow renters and low-income people to get power from collectively owned solar panels — located, say, on the roof of a public school or other neighborhood building — as I documented in a recent Institute for Policy Studies report.

With shared solar, you'd even still benefit from net metering.

And when you contract with a company to install solar panels, you do your part to create jobs. Lots of them. According to Department of Energy data, solar jobs already outnumber coal-related jobs by a factor of more than 2 to 1, despite solar making up a much smaller share of the overall grid.

All in all, I'd say these incentives make a strong pitch for solar: You can help address climate change, grow the renewable energy economy, create jobs, and save money. Win-win-win, right?

Well, not if you're in the fossil fuel industry — or one of the politicians who owe them favors. And that's where things get messy.

In statehouses all over the country, there's a growing movement by industry front groups to undermine net metering and other renewable energy incentives. These front groups include the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry’s trade association, and outfits such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, both of which are funded by the Koch brothers.

These groups scored recent victories against net metering in Indiana and Maine, and have turned the renewable energy mandate for utilities in wind-rich Kansas — known in the industry as a Renewable Portfolio Standard — into a toothless voluntary goal.

Industry groups and the politicians they effectively buy claim that distributed solar energy imposes costs on customers who don’t install solar panels, because solar users don't pay their fair share of the costs of maintaining the grid.

Most cynically, they feign concern for poor people. Typical of this is Maine Governor Paul LePage’s claim, in his letter vetoing a bill that would've preserved net metering in his state, that the practice “subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor who can least afford it.”

However, independent energy experts — even those who don't support net metering in all circumstances — argue that the practice can be a “reasonable proxy for the value of solar.” The case against the utility and Koch-led attack on renewables is strong on logic, but evidently weak on campaign cash, which is why the onslaught of anti-net metering and anti-renewables bills continues.

This state-level push parallels another front at the federal level, where the Trump administration is unabashedly waging war on renewables. The president’s budget proposal eviscerates federal support for clean energy research, and the president has been an unapologetic supporter of the fossil fuel industry.

Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryPerry’s grid plan will keep on the lights — and the Wi-Fi Eric Trump’s brother-in-law promoted at Department of Energy Official National Park account: There's 'overwhelming consensus' on climate change MORE joined the fray recently by ordering a study seemingly designed to show that renewables are undermining grid security. Evidently, he also wants to do Edison Electric Institute and ALEC’s dirty work by using the study to attack Renewable Portfolio Standards and wind and solar incentives in the states.

Amusingly, a leaked draft of the study apparently shows that the electric grid is becoming more reliable as wind and solar penetration increase. Apparently career energy experts at the Department of Energy aren't concerned with the ideological preferences of their political appointee overlords.

The truth is the best antidote to this flood of anti-renewables policies based on fossil fuel-funded misinformation. When people learn the benefits of renewables, they push back against these policies, defying partisan political stereotypes.

In Florida last year, voters rejected a ballot initiative to ban third-party sales and leases of solar panels, even after utilities spent $21 million to promote it — and even as Trump carried the state. Another purple state, Nevada, got rid of net metering — but then reversed course and reinstated it under pressure.

And it’s not just defensive fights either. Strong movements are pushing good energy policy in states all over, such as Hawaii’s mandate for 100 percent of its electricity to come from renewables by 2045, and Oregon’s requirement that 10 percent of shared solar capacity be set aside for low-income people.

By telling the truth — and by organizing like crazy — we can win policies that grow the green economy for everyone, in red states and blue.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.