Political conservatives were once thought to be anti-solar, but some conservative groups are now advocating for solar. Rather than focusing on environmental benefits, however, these organizations’ talking points emphasize energy security, freedom from monopolies and free-market principles.
“A lot of conservatives have been conditioned to believe solar is bad or it’s just for tree huggers and the rest,” says Debbie Dooley, president of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and the Green Tea Coalition, based in Atlanta. “That absolutely is not true.”
Dooley explains that some conservatives frame the argument as one of freedom. Solar can help empower consumers against utilities, which she says are monopolies formed by government action. “A monopoly is the government telling you what you can and cannot do – who you buy your power from,” states Dooley. “They make a guaranteed profit. They can make customers pay fully for the cost of their investment.”
The fight for free-market principles and for the freedom to generate one’s own electricity also fits with another theme, national defense. “Nothing is more centralized in our nation than our power grid, so it is extremely vulnerable to a terrorist attack,” Dooley says. “It would be easy to attack a centralized structure, but it would be difficult to attack millions of rooftops.”
Dooley also supports wind, biofuels and natural gas, and she says the U.S. should be looking at innovation, not regulation, to boost energy growth. Conservatives for Energy Freedom was one of the founding groups of Floridians for Solar Choice, which worked to put on the November 2016 ballot a proposed amendment that would change the state’s law against buying electricity from an entity other than a utility and allow third-party sales.
The conservative groups are also joining a net-metering fight in Nevada and are engaged in similar battles in other states. “Even though I am on the side of conservative principles of free-market choice and true energy freedom, I am facing Koch brothers-funded opposition,” Dooley says. “A lot of these fossil-fuel-funded groups are joining forces with the monopolies to stop competition from solar. That’s a battle I don’t shy away from.”
Dooley does not think it is strange for conservative southern groups to fight for renewables. “Even NASCAR has a green focus – on carbon offsets,” she notes.
Other conservative groups agree that they prefer to focus on freedom and security when making their case for solar. “If you say ‘climate change,’ you immediately shut down half the room,” explains Michele Combs, the founder and chairperson of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, based in Washington, D.C. Instead, the groups might use the term “home-grown energy.”
“How much more home grown can you get than panels on your roof?” says Combs.
Another important theme among conservatives is energy independence. “We can get out of these countries that hate us and control our destiny in this country,” comments Combs. “We can be independent and use our own natural resources.”
Combs says Young Conservatives for Energy Reform appeals to millennials who were brought up learning to recycle and are now starting families and buying homes. “They see fossil fuels not as the future, but as the past. They want a better vision, and they see solar leading the way.”
The group works with state chapters of the Christian Coalition and advocated for the expansion of the renewable energy production tax credit and investment tax credit last year. “We worked really hard on that,” Combs says. “That was a big accomplishment for wind and solar.”
Other organizations focus less on their conservative leanings and talk more about coming together to meet important goals. The group No Labels, which is based in Washington, D.C., is made up of Democrats, Republicans and Liberals, says chief strategist Ryan Clancy. He says the group conducted nationwide polling to identify important policy goals. “What are good politics and good policy ideas that a member of Congress could go to a town hall meeting and everyone would agree?” he says.
The results eventually became the group’s National Strategic Agenda, consisting of four goals: create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years, secure Social Security and Medicare over the next 75 years, balance the federal budget by 2030, and make the U.S. energy secure by 2024. Part of the fourth goal includes adding new sources of power to replace aging coal plants and updating the aging grid as part of a national security effort. “The electric grid is neither as smart nor as secure as it needs to be,” Clancy says. “The need to invest in a smarter, more secure electric grid will lead you to more solar capacity in the system.”
He says the group does not talk about climate change. “That is such a hot-button topic; it is not constructive for us to talk about it one way or the other,” he says. “We talk about things to do to make America energy secure.”
Not all conservatives agree about the goals of solar. “It is not true that solar is a conservative ethos,” says Paul Walker, executive director of ConservAmerica. “There continues to be a large majority of conservatives opposing solar because of the subsidy basis that drives it still to this day.”
ConservAmerica, which was founded as Republicans for Environmental Protection in 1995, is advocating for Blue Collar Solar, a model in which the homeowner does not need to have a strong credit score, or thousands of dollars, to qualify for a solar lease. Instead, the homeowner can get a solar installation installed by a third party, paid for by the utility and maintained by the utility. The homeowner gets a bill discount every month.
Walker says the model is being piloted in Arizona, and one goal is to make solar more equitably dispersed. “It is not sustainable to operate under the status quo, in which 60 percent of solar is being put on the homes of the wealthiest homes in America,” he says.
“The future of solar is at a crossroads,” Walker says. “We can continue the current pathsubsidies leading to inequities, states prohibiting utilities from emplacing solar – or we can come up with new approaches that make it a win-win-win: Costs of solar become equitably and fairly distributed and solar becomes more available, customers benefit, and we use solar to reduce emissions.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.