The Koch brothers have a new ploy to protect the traditional energy business that helped make them the planet's fifth- and sixth-richest humans. They are funding a campaign to shackle solar energy consumers who have escaped the grip of big electric utilities.
Of all the pro-business, anti-government causes they have funded with their billions, this may be the most cynical and self-serving. On Sunday, a Los Angeles Times story by Evan Halper outlined the Koch's latest scheme. Along with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, several major power companies and a national association representing conservative state legislators, the brothers are aiming to kill preferences for the burgeoning solar power industry that have been put into law in dozens of states. Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona are their first targets, with more to come.
They already have their first victory. On Monday, Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature that authorizes electric utilities to tack a surcharge on the bills of private citizens who have installed solar panels or wind turbines on their homes. That's right, Oklahomans who have spent money to generate their own clean and green power now must pay compensation to the power companies.
This sounds a bit like government trampling on the independence of the citizenry. You'd think the tea party would be protesting and militia groups would be riding in with guns drawn. But since it is Republicans and big business doing the trampling, there is, as yet, no outcry from the libertarian crowd.
So, what is driving this crusade against clean energy? As Halper reports, "At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates."
These laws have helped the solar industry reach a tipping point where the business model is finally viable. In a world where too much CO2 from coal, gas and oil is being pumped into the atmosphere, that seems like a good thing, but the Kochs and the utilities claim solar's success is a threat to the future of the power grid. If there are more and more households freeing themselves from total reliance on traditional power sources, there will be less money available to maintain the electricity delivery infrastructure.
They may have a valid point, but the problem could be addressed with modest adjustments to the system. That they have opted for an all-out war against key laws that promote alternative energy suggests the real motivation may be more crass: protecting the profits of the entrenched fossil fuels-based energy industry.
Environmentalists have been energized to stand in the way of this well-funded multi-state onslaught against solar power, and it is gratifying to hear there is one conservative with a venerable Republican lineage who is taking their side. Former California congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. has formed a group, awkwardly named Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed, that hopes to gather support among conservatives to oppose the big utilities.
"These solar companies are becoming popular, and utilities don't like competition," Goldwater told The Times. "I believe people ought to have a choice."