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Several of the nation’s largest solar installers, including SolarCity, Sungevity, SunRun, and Verengo, form a lobbying organization, the Alliance for Solar Choice (ASC), to fight back against conventional utilities’ efforts to curtail or cancel programs that support renewable energy in 43 states. The ASC will begin by working to preserve “net metering” policies that require utilities to purchase surplus electricity at retail rates from customers with rooftop solar systems. ASC president Bryan Miller, a SunRun executive, says the group is responding to “the coordinated utility attack on net metering throughout the country.” Many utilities “have opposed net energy metering since its inception.” Utilities argue that as more people install solar arrays and generate power for themselves, non-solar customers are forced to pay higher rates to subsidize utility costs for grid maintenance and the like. (That argument has been strongly challenged—see April 5, 2013.) (Herndon 5/10/2013)
Keally DeWitt, an executive with solar provider SunRun, writes an opinion column lambasting a proposal by the Arizona Public Service (APS) utility company that would drastically overhaul Arizona’s net metering policy, favoring the utilities and damaging the ability of solar installers like SunRun to function in Arizona. DeWitt says the proposal, if approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), would doom the solar industry in that state. APS has proposed two options to replace the current policy. One is to charge solar homeowners $50 to $100 a month for accessing the electrical grid, no matter how little they may actually use electricity generated by the utilities (see July 16, 2013). The second option is to change the net metering practice from paying solar power consumers a credit for solar consumption at the retail rate to the much lower wholesale rate. APS has stated, “The plan is built around two options, either of which would ensure that APS customers who choose rooftop solar in the future will be compensated fairly for the electricity they generate and pay a fair price for their use of the electricity grid.” DeWitt writes that APS is “ignoring the fact that clean, local energy is worth more than fossil fuel-generated energy being transported hundreds of miles.… Both options would eliminate any financial benefits for homeowners, especially those in the working or middle classes, who want to control costs with rooftop solar.” DeWitt says that APS has created “astroturf,” or fake grassroots, groups such as 60 Plus and Prosper HQ, and used those groups to air advertisements attacking solar users. One ad compares Arizona’s solar industry to the bankrupt, much-reviled solar corporation Solyndra, and claims, “California billionaires are getting rich off of your tax dollars.” DeWitt writes, “Using outdated scare tactics and financial figures that have been publicly denounced, the groups appear to be blatantly lying to the public (and driving people crazy through overplaying their ads on YouTube).” Bryan Miller, an executive for SunRun and the head of the Alliance for Solar Choice (see Shortly Before May 10, 2013), called the ad a “disgusting attack against their own Arizona solar customers,” and said APS is responsible for the video. APS spokesperson Jenna Shaver retorted, “APS had nothing to do with the making of or the content of the video, but we were aware 60 Plus was going to engage in the discussion and we welcome their support.” Shaver said the ad merely counters attack ads aired by the Arizona solar industry. A solar advocacy group, Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK), headed by Republican Barry Goldwater Jr., has countered with its own ad featuring rooftop solar customers and a rooftop solar worker, all APS ratepayers, who are against the changes. TUSK’s Jason Rose recently said: “The proposal allows the ACC to create a backdoor tax on solar owners that will either severely curtail or kill solar in Arizona.… Solar is a disruptive technology and APS can’t compete. They are trying to maintain their profits and protect their shareholders’ stock price. We have spent a lot of time talking with them and they fear for their future.” One homeowner told DeWitt: “I had a solar system installed over a year ago and it has been a great benefit to me. APS, even more, benefits from the electricity that I produce. It does not cost them anything to produce the electricity; I even pay for the repairs that are needed. Why should I be penalized from going solar? This will only deter people from purchasing solar and eliminate jobs in the growing solar market in Arizona.” Rose recently told a reporter, “After conservative states like Idaho and Louisiana rejected proposals to change net metering, it would be a travesty for Arizona, the sunniest state in the union, to do it.” Miller said flatly, “The fight for net metering in Arizona is the most significant fight for solar in the country.” (Trabish 7/3/2013; Trabish 7/12/2013; DeWitt 8/14/2013)
Grist columnist and solar power expert David Roberts lays out three ways the American populace can have relatively unfettered access to solar energy, given the recalcitrance and active opposition of the conventional power utility companies and many lawmakers. Once renewable energy becomes more accessible and widespread, it becomes more of an economic force, creating jobs and generating a revenue stream. “That’s why renewable power remains untouchable in German politics,” he writes, “lots of Germans are directly involved with it.” (Roberts 9/13/2013)
Leasing - Most American families cannot afford the initial costs of a rooftop solar array, especially when it will take five or 10 years to recoup those costs. Add to that the fact that the homeowner must manage their individual “power plant,” and stay in the home long enough to see financial benefits, and most American families are unwilling to take on such a burden. Roberts suggests that many families may benefit from leasing rooftop solar arrays from companies such as SunRun, SolarCity, or Sungevity. “The solar company effectively becomes a utility,” he writes. “You pay them a monthly fee for the electricity the panels produce.” Most homeowners will either break even on their electricity costs, or save money, in part depending on whether the solar providers in their areas are eligible for state mandates or rebates. Southern California is experiencing quite a boom in solar leasing, with some $1 billion in economic activity being generated since 2007. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently found that solar leasing “has enticed a new demographic to adopt PV [photovoltaic] systems that is more highly correlated to younger, less affluent, and less educated populations than the demographics correlated to purchasing PV systems.” By appealing to less affluent consumers, “third-party PV products are likely increasing total PV demand rather than gaining market share entirely at the expense of existing customer owned PV demand.” SunRun president Lynn Jurich says, “[A]bout 75 percent of Californians switching to solar now choose solar power service” over ownership. Other states featuring solar leasing include Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. SunPower executive Howard Wenger said of his company’s lease program in August 2012: “It’s growing incredibly fast. We’re at a rate of about 1.5 megawatts to 2 megawatts per week.” (Woody 8/9/2012; Roberts 9/13/2013)
Community Solar - Some 70 to 80 percent of Americans live in buildings unsuitable for rooftop solar panel arrays. One alternative they have is to form communities of solar power users. Together, they can lease or buy solar arrays. Some power utilities own or operate solar power projects that ratepayers can join. Other people are forming their own communities, either in a business or non-profit enterprise. (Farrell 5/1/2012; Roberts 9/13/2013)
Solar Power Purchasing Agreements - Solar power purchasing agreements (PPAs) are similar to leases, where individuals buy power from third-party owners and operators of solar arrays. One large organization investing in PPAs is the US military, which is working with SolarCity to lease solar arrays for 120,000 military residences in California and Colorado. Some states have laws making it difficult or downright impossible for PPAs to exist. (Hsu 7/17/2012; Environmental Protection Agency 10/16/2012; Roberts 9/13/2013)
Reporter Grace Wyler of the online technology magazine Motherboard writes that solar power generation “poses a mortal threat to the mainline power utilities that have dominated energy distribution in the US since the late 19th century.” Wyler echoes the findings of a January 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI—see January 2013). The price of solar energy is dropping, she writes, and a new solar unit is being installed somewhere in the country every four minutes. The nation’s solar capacity has doubled since 2008 and costs are down 40 percent. Within 10 years, perhaps sooner, analysts predict, the price of solar generated energy will reach parity with other power sources. Naturally, conventional energy utility companies “are waging an escalating war against independent power distributors, and particularly against a new crop of solar technology companies that threaten to disrupt their century-old business model,” she writes.
Net Metering Among Largest Issues - One of the biggest issues is “net metering,” a policy which allows renewable energy consumers to sell their excess power back to the grid at retail prices. Net metering is taking the place of state subsidies for solar energy producers, allowing solar consumers to lower their energy bills. However, utilities fear what Wyler calls “a so-called ‘utility death spiral,’ in which more and more customers generate their own power, forcing utilities to charge higher rates to maintain infrastructure that was intended for a much larger pool of energy consumers, which will in turn encourage more people to turn to distributed energy options—which in most cases means solar panels.” Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers told a Bloomberg reporter: “It is obviously a potential threat to us over the long term. If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down, and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” The EEI wrote that if the utility industry does not take immediate action, renewable energy could soon cause “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” of utilities. These firms are battling net metering, claiming that conventional energy consumers are paying higher rates because of solar energy usage, a claim that has been challenged (see April 5, 2013). Utilities are fighting net metering policies in at least 11 states, asking regulators to impose new rate structures that would lower the amount utilities pay to buy back excess power from renewables consumers, and in some cases impose new grid-use fees on solar customers. Solar energy and technology producers such as Sungevity, SunRun, and SolarCity are fighting back against the utilities’ push.
Odd Political Bedfellows Joining to Fight Utility Restrictions - The solar companies are fighting the policy restrictions, not just on financial grounds, but, Wyler writes, because they believe government-sanctioned utilities monopolies are outdated and interfere with progress, calling it “the techno-libertarian view that regulation is an impediment to innovation and technological progress.” SolarCity spokesperson William Craven says: “Having more choice and more competition in the sector benefits pretty much everyone except the monopoly that has enjoyed having a monopoly for the past 100 years. It’s not clear that that system benefits anyone else. Generally, greater choice and greater competition drives innovation and drives reduced costs.” Many libertarian conservatives are joining the push for deregulation, broadening the base of solar consumers and advocates by aligning themselves with the more left-leaning solar advocates whose push for renewable energy is largely driven by environmental concerns. Even some far-right tea party groups are joining the push for deregulation. “From a conservative, or libertarian, perspective, it raises the question of why are we giving these guys a monopoly when they don’t need it anymore?” says John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which pushes for distributed generation. “We can generate electricity in lots of different ways. We don’t need a big centralized corporate entity to generate electricity. We can do it ourselves.” Wyler says this “strange grassroots coalition” is successfully fighting back against the utilities’ attempts to weaken net metering, citing victories in California, Georgia, Idaho, and Louisiana. Rosalind Jackson of Vote Solar says: “Utilities have a simple argument that sounds compelling, but time and again, we’ve seen such strong public outcry against the idea of utilities trying to take away the right to generate power that the decisions have actually come down on the side of solar customers.… This is a regulated industry that has not had to innovate for a century. But they are faced with a real disruptive technology. There are new entrants for customers who have never had an option before. So that’s a very real threat.” (Wyler 9/23/2013)
The Arizona Public Service (APS), Arizona’s largest utility, admits that it paid a national conservative organization, the 60 Plus Association, to run advertisements attacking Arizona’s solar energy industry. APS has previously denied funding the ad campaign (see August 14, 2013). APS is trying to persuade the state’s public utility commission to change a state policy allowing homes and businesses that generate their own solar power to sell the excess energy they generate back to the grid (see July 16, 2013), a practice known as “net metering.” Solar advocates say the policy has helped create an increasing demand for rooftop solar energy equipment. APS has argued that solar energy producers pay less than their fair share for conventionally generated electricity, a popular argument among conservative opponents of solar power (see October 15, 2012) that has been challenged as false and misleading (see April 5, 2013 and July 31, 2013). A recent report showed that the utility companies fear massive loss of revenues in the future as solar power begins to eat into their monopoly on electricity provision in Arizona and other states (see January 2013), in part because most utility companies find it difficult and expensive to modernize their industry (see February 7, 2013). Solar advocates say that the elimination of net metering would essentially “kill rooftop solar in Arizona” (see August 14, 2013). Republican state icon Barry Goldwater Jr. leads a pro-solar organization, TUSK, that many in the conventional utility industry seem to fear. In July 2013, APS spokesman Jim McDonald flatly denied that APS was paying 60 Plus to run the ads, telling a reporter, “No, we are not” funding the ad campaign. But reporting by the Arizona Republic has revealed that APS did pay 60 Plus to run ads attacking the solar industry, as well as paying other groups such as Prosper and perhaps others to engage in similar advertising. McDonald now admits, “It goes through our consultant, but APS money does ultimately fund 60 Plus and Prosper.” McDonald now says he was not lying in July, because “[t]hat was my understanding at the time.” He denies knowing how much APS has paid 60 Plus, Prosper, and perhaps other groups, but says whatever money was spent came from shareholders’ funds and not ratepayer money. He then pivots, saying that the issue is “a phony controversy fueled by opponents who are eager to distract attention from the real substance from the issue.” He adds: “We’re in the middle of a bitter political fight. This is not a battle that we want to fight, but we cannot back down.… [W]e are not going to lie down and get our heads kicked in. We are just not. We are obligated to fight. It is irresponsible to our customers not to fight back.” APS vice president John Hatfield tells another reporter that APS “is contributing money to the nonprofits [60 Plus and Prosper], and potentially other groups through political consultant Sean Noble and his firm, DC London.” McDonald denies that APS is anti-solar, but the ads by 60 Plus are openly hostile to solar energy. Prosper has aired ads attacking both solar energy and Medicaid expansion. Bryan Miller of the Alliance for Solar Choice says: “APS knows how popular solar is. Rather than owning up to their attacks, they set up shady organizations and worked behind them, and lied to the public and regulators for months and months. They owe the public an explanation.” Solar industry officials say that most consumers would not choose to use solar if they did not get credit for the excess energy they give back to APS. Lyndon Rive, the founder and CEO of Solar City, says that most new solar customers are installing the panels with leases, and with their new lower power bill and lease payment, they save from $5 to $10 a month. Any additional cost to solar customers greater than a few dollars would prevent most people from using solar, he says, a claim that other industry experts echo. Goldwater recently told a reporter, “Innovation is happening all around APS, and they are sitting there like an elephant in a mud puddle.” He added: “All of the [utility] commissioners are Republicans and conservatives who believe in [market] choice. They will come down on the side of competition and against APS. They better, or they are in trouble. That’s why we have elections. If we don’t like the job they are doing, we will replace them. The people in the bleachers know a lot more about what’s going on down on the field than we give them credit for.” McDonald says TUSK and other pro-solar groups are merely masquerading as conservatives, and in truth are linked to Democrats and the Obama administration.
60 Plus Funded by Koch Brothers; Ads Link Arizona Solar Industries to Solyndra - 60 Plus, an organization that calls itself a more conservative alternative to the more mainstream AARP, is a lobbying organization funded by oil magnates Charles and David Koch (see 1981-2010). In recent years, 60 Plus has produced ads attacking health care reform using false and misleading claims (see Shortly Before August 10, 2009 and August 11, 2009), and was part of a 2009 push to create “astroturf” (fake grassroots) organizations to attack health care legislation (see August 14, 2009). 60 Plus has led the conservative pushback against TUSK and other pro-solar lobbying and advocacy groups, calling net metering “corporate welfare.” The ads attempt to link Arizona solar energy companies SolarCity and SunRun with Solyndra, the solar manufacturer that went bankrupt in 2011. The two firms have no known connections to Solyndra. One ad shows images of secretive businessmen doing deals outside a corporate jet while the voiceover tells listeners, “California billionaires are getting rich off of your tax dollars.” The Prosper ad made an unsubstantiated claim that every rooftop array “adds $20,000 in costs to customers,” a claim that APS CEO Don Brandt has made since the spring of 2013. 60 Plus is led by Noble, a conservative operator who has been called “the wizard behind the screen” in the Koch’s donor network.
Prosper Founded by Republican Politicians and Staffers - Prosper is led by former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican, and former staffers for ex-Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Adams denies that Prosper was formed to work on APS’s behalf, and that it is also working to block Arizona’s planned expansion of Medicaid. (Randazzo and Anglen 10/21/2013; Kroll 10/21/2013; Trabish 10/22/2013; Sheppard 10/25/2013)
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