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Koch brothers, big utilities attack solar, green energy policies

The Koch brothers and large utilities have allied to reverse state policies that favor renewable energy. Environmentalists are pushing back, but the fight is spreading and intensifying.

April 19, 2014|By Evan Halper
  • Americans for Prosperity, run by David Koch, shown here, and his brother, Charles, has led the effort to overturn a law in Kansas that requires 20% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources.
Americans for Prosperity, run by David Koch, shown here, and his brother,… (Phelan M. Ebanhack / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The political attack ad that ran recently in Arizona had some familiar hallmarks of the genre, including a greedy villain who hogged sweets for himself and made children cry.

But the bad guy, in this case, wasn't a fat-cat lobbyist or someone's political opponent.

He was a solar-energy consumer.

Solar, once almost universally regarded as a virtuous, if perhaps over-hyped, energy alternative, has now grown big enough to have enemies.

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation's largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

Net metering forms the linchpin of the solar-energy business model. Without it, firms say, solar power would be prohibitively expensive.

The power industry argues that net metering provides an unfair advantage to solar consumers, who don't pay to maintain the power grid although they draw money from it and rely on it for backup on cloudy days. The more people produce their own electricity through solar, the fewer are left being billed for the transmission lines, substations and computer systems that make up the grid, industry officials say.

"If you are using the grid and benefiting from the grid, you should pay for it," said David Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, the advocacy arm for the industry. "If you don't, other customers have to absorb those costs."

The institute has warned power companies that profits could erode catastrophically if current policies and market trends continue. If electricity companies delay in taking political action, the group warned in a report, "it may be too late to repair the utility business model."

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a membership group for conservative state lawmakers, recently drafted model legislation that targeted net metering. The group also helped launch efforts by conservative lawmakers in more than half a dozen states to repeal green energy mandates.

"State governments are starting to wake up," Christine Harbin Hanson, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, said in an email. The organization has led the effort to overturn the mandate in Kansas, which requires that 20% of the state's electricity come from renewable sources.

"These green energy mandates are bad policy," said Hanson, adding that the group was hopeful Kansas would be the first of many dominoes to fall.

The group's campaign in that state compared the green energy mandate to Obamacare, featuring ominous images of Kathleen Sebelius, the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, who was Kansas' governor when the state adopted the requirement.

The Kansas Senate voted late last month to repeal the mandate, but solar industry allies in the state House blocked the move.

Environmentalists were unnerved. "The want to roll it back here so they can start picking off other states," said Dorothy Barnett, director of the Climate and Energy Project, a Kansas advocacy group.

The arguments over who benefits from net metering, meanwhile, are hotly disputed. Some studies, including one published recently by regulators in Vermont, conclude that solar customers bring enough benefits to a regional power supply to fully defray the cost of the incentive.

Utilities deny that and are spending large sums to greatly scale back the policy.

In Arizona, a major utility and a tangle of secret donors and operatives with ties to ALEC and the Kochs invested millions to persuade state regulators to impose a monthly fee of $50 to $100 on net-metering customers.

Two pro-business groups, at least one of which had previously reported receiving millions of dollars from the Koch brothers, formed the campaign's public face. Their activities were coordinated by GOP consultant Sean Noble and former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, two early architects of the Koch network of nonprofits.

In October, California ethics officials levied a $1-million fine after accusing groups the two men ran during the 2012 election of violating state campaign finance laws in an effort to hide the identities of donors.

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