How the Tea Party came to love solar energy
Last month, I wrote about a proposed Oklahoma law to levy a new fee on those who generate their own energy through solar equipment or wind turbines on their property, and sell it back to the grid.
The law was trumpeted by utility companies — who are big donors to conservative and Republican causes — as well as certain conservative groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Their argument was that solar users are taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and need to pay for it.
The counter-argument is that renewable energy fed back into the grid is ultimately doing utility companies a service. Solar generates in the daytime, when demand for electricity is highest, thereby alleviating pressure during peak demand. Indeed, the Oklahoma law had all the hallmarks of an attempt to curb the growth of solar, in the interests of protecting traditional energy companies.
The Oklahoma measure was ultimately signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin (R). But in an unexpected move, she also issued an executive order directing the state energy commission to "impose solar fees only as a last resort and to continue making expansion of solar power a priority," as David Horsey writes at the Los Angeles Times.
It turns out that the conservative war on solar is not so simple. Fallin's rhetorical support for solar reflects the fact that the Republican Party — and the broader conservative movement — is divided on the issue of renewable energy, and what the government should do about it.
On one side are entrenched interests — utilities companies and Big Oil and their supporters — that devised and promoted the idea of fees on solar users. They might not be opposed to renewable energy in principle; lots of oil companies, including Chevron, Total, and BP, are investing in solar projects, and oil giant Shell projected that by 2100 solar will be the dominant energy source. But they certainly don't want solar prices (which are already falling pretty rapidly) to fall so quickly that they kill their existing non-renewable energy businesses.
On the other side are Tea Party-leaning conservatives who like the idea of decentralized energy independent of big corporations and government. The Tea Party group supporting Barry Goldwater Jr. — a former California congressman and son of the presidential candidate of the same name — founded the lobbying organization Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed (TUSK), which started off by fighting solar fees in Arizona, but has since expanded to Oklahoma and the rest of the United States.
Unsurprisingly, the fees and tariffs on solar are anathema to tax-hating conservatives. But they have other reasons to embrace renewables, even if they are different from those that liberals usually cite. While liberals tend to be concerned about climate change and the environment, conservative supporters of solar power cite decentralization, self-reliance, technological innovation, and the free market. Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said last year that said she liked solar because it is "a free market issue that gives consumers more choice."
And while the development of renewable energy has been supported by government subsidies — something that conservatives generally claim to hate — it's not like other forms of energy are making do without help from Uncle Sam. On a global scale, fossil fuels — a mature industry, not a nascent one — receive 10 times the total subsidies that renewable energy enjoys. Nuclear is heavily subsidized, too — and also highly centralized. So for all the hatred of the Obama administration's loan guarantees to Solyndra, subsidies alone are not sufficient reason for conservatives to reject solar technology.
These factors suggest that ultimately it will be very difficult for utility companies to slow the adoption of renewable energy technology, so long as the price keeps falling. If even the Solyndra-hating, climate change-disbelieving conservative base won't buy into the utility companies' attempt to squelch solar adoption through government force, nobody will.