Why you should care

Keeping the lights on at home isn’t cheap. But it could get cheaper with more competition.

The author is the chairman of Arizona-based advocacy group Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, which advocates for consumer solar energy use on the basis of conservative, free-market principles.

Promoting solar energy is one of those eco-conscious policies only a liberal environmentalist could love, right? Wrong. There’s a conservative argument for solar power, and it stems from belief in a competitive energy marketplace. It’s a compelling idea, especially in a place like my home state of Arizona, where solar energy continues to grow and thrive. There are currently more than 334 solar companies at work in Arizona, employing thousands. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the 1,899 MW of solar energy currently installed in Arizona ranks the state second in the country in installed solar capacity.

America’s utilities, however, have launched efforts across the country to stomp out competition from rooftop solar, in which customers use solar panels installed on their homes to generate power and reduce the electricity they consume. The efforts to kill rooftop solar represent a desperate attempt by these utility companies to maintain their monopoly status. In doing so, they’re establishing themselves not only as anti-solar, but also anti-conservative.

Rooftop solar is the only true form of competition that utility monopolies have ever faced.

First, utility companies have tried the most liberal of all liberal arguments. They attempted to turn solar into a class warfare issue through bogus ads funded by dark money groups that falsely claimed solar power was only for the rich. This despite the fact that prices have dropped enough to make solar very affordable. Conservatives reject class warfare, whether it comes from liberals or utilities. Now the utilities are contradicting some of the most fundamental Grand Old Party principles: competition, property rights and lower taxes. Conservatives support competition and must fight to maintain it. It is good for consumers and it is good for economic growth. If the typewriter lobby had succeeded in stomping out competition from modern computers, the American economy would be in a far different place today. Rooftop solar is the only true form of competition that utility monopolies have ever faced. When utilities push regulators to stop competition from solar, they push away the conservative base.

Conservatives also stand staunchly for property rights. Homeowners have the right to decide what they do with their own roofs, and that includes installing solar panels to power their homes. When utility monopolies ask Big Government to dictate how customers use their roofs, they attack the conservative way. Finally, conservatives support lower taxes. Imposing new taxes on Americans who want to install solar panels means forsaking this conservative value. We believe in tax cuts, not tax creation. Conservative voters will not sit by quietly if the regulated monopoly, elected officials or any other group tries to raise taxes on solar energy.

Worker installing framework for solar roof panels on new home.

A worker installs a framework for solar roof panels on a new home.

Source Mischa Keijser/Cultura/Corbis

The good news is that, nationwide, Republicans are rallying with greater strength than ever before around the growing success of rooftop solar and its long-term potential. In Georgia last year, conservative solar groups prevented utilities from imposing a fee on independent solar customers. In Louisiana, outcry from conservatives kept utilities from stomping out solar competition twice in the last 18 months. In South Carolina, conservatives opposed anti-competitive language in a solar bill that would have allowed big utilities like Duke Energy to stifle the competitive market. The conservative pushback helped remove that poison pill. Utility attacks on rooftop solar have also failed in Idaho, Kansas and Oklahoma because of such widespread resistance from Republican voters.

Arizona Public Service wants guaranteed profits for building rooftop solar, which would undercut a thriving, independent solar market.

Polling commissioned by my group, Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK), underscores the support for solar energy on the right. In Arizona, 83 percent of conservative voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who wants to end solar power. In fellow red state Louisiana, 76 percent of conservatives in a recent poll agree the opportunity for homeowners to go solar is important for providing choice and competition in electricity. When South Carolina voters were asked if consumers should pay an additional fee to invest in solar panels, 92 percent said “no.” And, 90 percent of self-identified Republicans said that South Carolina solar panel customers should pay the same or less than they are paying currently. In all three states, elected leaders will continue to feel pressure from their constituents if they oppose rooftop solar.

TUSK began as a conservative, pro-solar organization in Arizona to oppose rooftop solar attacks from Arizona Public Service. We have since expanded to six additional states in the past several months. In Arizona, it’s no surprise that the monopolist utility Arizona Public Service wants to stifle the competitive rooftop solar market by folding everything under the monopoly’s grasp. They want guaranteed profits for building rooftop solar, which would undercut the thriving, independent solar market. That’s not fair to consumers, and it’s not the conservative way.

Lobbying for anti-competitive policies, restricting property rights and increasing taxes is rent-seeking, monopoly protection in its purest form. These strategies attack conservatives at the core, and they hinder American progress. This losing strategy for utilities will only continue to fall on deaf ears within the conservative camp.

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 14, 2014.

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