When TUSK Comes to Town

Written by Matthew Wheeland
This article originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net, and is reprinted with permission

In the last two years, the U.S. solar industry has faced a nearly endless series of attacks on the tools that have made the solar boom possible. Many utility companies (but not all of them, as our “Utility of the Future” series highlights), aided by state legislators, are attacking net metering structures that pay solar homeowners a fair price for the energy they generate and send back to the grid.

The response to these attacks has been consistent, if inconsistently successful. When utility company Arizona Public Service in 2013 tried to levy $50 to $100 per month in fees on solar homeowners, members at every level of the solar industry rose up in protest. From solar fans to solar homeowners to local solar installers to industry coalitions and advocacy groups, solar supporters spoke out against the attack.

The results were less than a complete win, but far from a significant loss, either: APS was allowed by the state’s public utilities commission to charge solar homeowners $5 per month for generating electricity on behalf of APS.

If Arizona was a big flash point in the current war for clean energy, it also marked the birth of a new player in the fight. TUSK, a conservative, pro-solar group with a great acronym (only somewhat burdened by an unwieldy full name: Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed), was launched in response to the APS fee campaign. Founded by Barry Goldwater, Jr., the son of the conservative icon, TUSK brings a conservative viewpoint to the pro-solar debate.

“Energy choice is just a logical extension of the conservative philosophy,” explained Michael Scerbo, a spokesperson for TUSK. “A free-market model [that comes out of] the energy generation model — that’s never been a debate up until now. Home solar is a new technology and the utilities aren’t exactly pleased.”

In the wake of the Arizona campaign, TUSK has since expanded its efforts to other states – mostly red states, with some purple states thrown in the mix – and I spoke with Scerbo to learn more about the group’s expansion and the conservative take on solar.

Most recently, TUSK has moved into Colorado, where Xcel Energy is trying gut net metering rates, even as it invests its own taxpayer funds in large-scale solar projects. TUSK has created a short video criticizing the utility’s efforts, and is working to rally Colorado residents to support solar. The group has also partnered with solar industry advocacy group The Alliance for Solar Choice in Colorado and elsewhere to pool resources and multiply their pro-solar impact.

“We were pleased to hear that TUSK wanted to enter Colorado,” Gracie Walovich, a spokesperson with The Alliance for Solar Choice, explained by email. “It’s clear that they recognize the strong conservative support for solar in the state. TUSK’s successes nationally show that rooftop solar is consistent with conservative principles.”

Scerbo himself offered plenty of examples of how well solar and conservative principles mesh. “Rooftop solar is where the conservative mindset comes in,” he said. “[Solar] does represent the first genuine free market competition that utilities face — one turns a home into a generating plant, and they reap the rewards.”

In addition to Arizona and Colorado, the group is also working in Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and North and South Carolina — all but Wisconsin were red states in the 2010 and 2012 elections, and all states where solar has great potential but is under attack by utilities and legislators alike.

In Mississippi, for instance, a report delivered to the state’s public utilities commission last year by research firm Synapse Energy Economics found that the benefits over the next 25 years from the state adopting net metering rules would average out to $170 per megawatt-hour of solar electricity used in the state.

“There is a troubling trend with respect to the utilities in red states,” Scerbo said. “They’re under the mistaken impression that there’s a conservative bias against solar power and they’ll try to challenge net metering.” However, he added, “there’s ample poll data that conservatives are supportive of rooftop solar.”

A key part of TUSK’s efforts involve letting regulators and lawmakers know that conservatives are also pro-solar, and that if they attack solar in the state, they’re going to alienate a conservative constituency as well as more left-leaning groups. That argument, Scerbo said, is especially powerful with lawmakers: “How often as a politician do you get to make the left and right happy?” he asked.

The central conservative argument in favor of solar, Scerbo explained is the idea of energy independence, which is coupled with an opposition to bullying from monopolies that are supported by Big Government. The other key factor spans the political spectrum: Conservatives, like every other group in America, like to save money.

“To dispel another myth,” Scerbo said, “the whole notion that those to the right of center are not concerned about the environment — they are. They like to go green and they like to save green, if they can do both, all the better.”