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U.S. Policy-Makers Are ‘Easy Prey’ for Anti-Solar Lobbyists, Study Finds

Inoculating policy-makers against utility lobbying by helping them understand the benefits of community solar will be critical to realizing the promise of energy equity that lies in the technology. 

That’s because American legislators are easy prey for utilities determined not to lose their share of the power pie, says Energy News Network. The revelations comes out of a study published in the June issue of Renewable Energy Focus that looked at how the solar industry, utilities, governments, and environmental groups interact in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas.

“Utilities often argue ‘that community shared solar is a logistical nightmare’,” said study author Gilbert Michaud, a policy analyst at Ohio University. The relationship between utility companies and community solar advocates is hardly cordial, with the former believing that the net metering mechanism so essential to the economic viability of community solar “may unfairly subsidize those who invest in solar and penalize non-solar ratepayers.”

“We see that our lawmakers don’t have the time to dig into nuanced energy issues themselves, so they rely more on utility lobbyists and special interests for their information,” added Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council.

The wide array of benefits that radiate out from community solar may also be contributing to policy-makers’ confusion, said Gabriel Chan, a policy analyst with the University of Minnesota. “Different groups frame community solar as serving different purposes, [such as] expanding access to solar, creating benefits for marginalized communities, reducing the utility’s monopoly power, getting more kilowatts of solar built, [and] creating environmental benefits,” he said. Chan recommended proponents always champion these diverse benefits so that, for example, those focused on public housing could attest to its beneficial role in energy policy.

For Scott Becker, spokesperson for Solstice, a Cambridge, Massachusetts non-profit that promotes community solar, “the foremost process recommendation would be to form working groups for specific aspects of policy…and ensure equitable representation of stakeholder groups within these working groups.”

Jonathan Welle, executive director of Cleveland Owns, said such alliances “could help policy-makers connect the dots between community solar and racial and economic equity,” adding that the technology can help address inequities in communities that have faced disproportionate health costs and other impacts from fossil fuels. “Rectifying some of those wrongs is also part of making a just transition to a clean energy economy,” added Welle.

In a separate report on an argument over net metering currently being reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), InsideClimate News notes that the mechanism is fundamental to the viability of rooftop solar. “By selling the electricity they don’t need, solar owners get credits on their utility bills, producing savings that help to cover the costs of solar systems.”

Tyson Slocum of the consumer group Public Citizen said the goal of a petition against net metering, delivered to FERC in April by the New England Ratepayers Association, is “to eviscerate state net metering, and therefore eviscerate financing tools to make rooftop solar systems affordable.”