This reality TV star was mad at Warren Buffett for blocking solar. So he made a movie
This is the Jan. 14, 2021, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
As rooftop solar power has gotten cheaper and more useful — a topic I wrote about last week — a powerful industry has pushed back. I’m talking about utilities, the state-sanctioned monopolies that build poles and wires and sell us electricity from centralized power plants, earning large guaranteed profits in the process.
Jonathan Scott is no fan of that industry.
If you haven’t spent much time watching HGTV — and full disclosure, I have not — Scott co-hosts “Property Brothers,” which features him and his twin brother, Drew, buying and renovating houses on a budget. He’s also a Las Vegas resident who put solar panels on his home and got pretty pissed when state officials allowed a monopoly utility owned by Warren Buffett to gut its “net metering” program, which compensates solar customers for the electricity they produce.
Spurred by his frustration, Scott spent three and a half years producing a documentary, “Power Trip,” which aired recently on PBS. The film explores how utility companies across the country have fought to maintain their monopolies, focusing on power players including Buffett’s NV Energy, Duke Energy in North Carolina and Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power.
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Scott interviewed hundreds of people, including a coal miner afflicted by black lung disease and people of color suffering from utility-generated fossil-fuel pollution in their communities. His film goes into impressive levels of detail on wonky topics such as the mechanics of net metering and the role of industry trade groups like the Edison Electric Institute.
I talked with Scott about solar’s bipartisan appeal, the importance of a “just transition” for fossil-fuel workers and the utility that threatened to stop sponsoring his TV show. The following highlights from our conversation are edited and condensed for clarity.
ME: Tell me about your decision to make this film, and why you dedicated so much time to it.
SCOTT: In Vegas, the process of putting solar on my home was pretty easy. The tricky thing was, NV Energy delayed and dragged their heels for months and months, and all they had to do was approve us to flip the switch and turn the system on. And it started to annoy me, because I’m paying these big power bills.
Shortly after they finally approved us, they killed net metering in Nevada. And all of us a sudden, solar companies left the state, and my head sort of spun, and I was like, “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s when I started digging in. I hired a researcher. And we discovered this secret war being waged against rooftop solar.
It turned into a human story. I traveled around the country. I met with hundreds of people from all different walks of life. And I discovered that across the board, whether they are Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, city dwellers, country dwellers — everybody agreed that renewable energy was a good thing. They liked the idea of being able to produce their own power. The only people I found that were against it were people affiliated with fossil-fuel companies or the utilities.
ME: Utilities often argue that rooftop solar is mostly for the wealthy, and that policies like net metering result in low-income families being forced to pay higher bills to maintain the electric grid. I know you don’t agree with that. But what did you learn in your travels about the economics of going solar and who can afford it?
SCOTT: There’s no one answer because every state is different. In Washington, D.C., not only do you get incentives, tax breaks, but there are also energy credits you can sell. In places like D.C., it’s incredibly beneficial to put in solar. There are other places where it’s more restrictive. In Nevada, the utility is allowed to set limits on how much solar you can install.
We need some sort of national energy policy that will not only bring that cost down and simplify the process, but also promote what is the future of energy. When I started the film, there were 20 coal-fired power plants slated to be built in the U.S. By the end, all of those projects were either abandoned or shut down. And that’s a good thing. We are moving in the right direction.
But solar is still being met with opposition. The new trend is that a lot of utilities are saying, “We’re pro-solar, we’re pro-renewable energy.” They support utility-scale solar farms, but they’re anti-rooftop solar because they want to own the power.
ME: In California, utilities have tried to reduce compensation to solar customers, although without much success. Now it looks like there’s another fight over net metering getting started at the Public Utilities Commission.
SCOTT: We read these articles about how California plans to be 100% renewable. But the utilities are trying to end net metering, and it will be the same thing that happened in Nevada. It will benefit the utilities, but it will adversely affect the individual.
ME: One thing I enjoyed in your film was how you teased out all the different energy companies that Warren Buffett owns. He’s invested in solar and wind farms, gas pipelines and even railways that move coal. I’m kind of fascinated by that.
SCOTT: Even some of my own friends saw the film and said, “What are you talking about? Warren’s a great guy.”
I was a big fan of Warren and all the stuff he’s done. Then I saw him talking about how net metering is a subsidy. Either he was severely misinformed by the people who work for him who run NV Energy, or he was lying through his teeth. Warren is an intelligent guy, and I don’t think he would ignorantly run a company of that magnitude without knowing what’s happening.
The first time we voted in Nevada on breaking up NV Energy’s monopoly, the ballot measure passed overwhelmingly. But you have to pass a ballot measure twice in order to change the state constitution. The second round, the utility spent $63 million on their ad campaign. They outspent the people who wanted to break up the monopoly 2-to-1. And they won. They managed to change people’s opinions. Their materials were really slick.
ME: One of the most striking moments in the film was your conversation with a Duke Energy spokesman. When you asked him why the company went to great lengths to stop a Black church from buying its own solar power, and whether the monopoly utility paradigm is immoral, part of his response was, “That’s just the way it has been.”
SCOTT: What a stupid answer. That’s how it’s always been. Yeah, well, it used to be that we didn’t allow women to vote, and it used to be that we enslaved people. That’s how that had always been.
“Property Brothers” airs in a lot of countries. When I first started writing the film — before I had talked to anybody externally — I got a phone call from the president of one of our networks, and they said, “We’ve got a problem.” One of our largest sponsors is the utility, and they said they found out I’m writing a film that does not paint them in a nice light, and they are going to pull their funding from our shows if I continue with the film.
That really got under my skin. One, how the hell did they even know I was writing this? That really creeped me out. And two, they don’t even know what the film is going to say. If they’re already that nervous, it means I’m obviously onto something.
ME: Another striking scene was your conversation with the Kentucky coal miner who had black lung disease. He told you he’d still recommend coal mining as a profession. But when you pressed and asked if he’d want his own children to become miners, he finally said no. Talk about that moment.
SCOTT: That was one of the most powerful parts of the entire journey. It was sad that Billy passed away two weeks after I interviewed him. I actually saw it in his eyes, where all of a sudden it clicked, and he realized there is a better way.
My grandfather was a coal miner. There are too many people who are willing to vilify anyone who worked in coal. Fossil fuels are how we got where we are today. They were the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. For people who say we need to go 100% renewable right now, flip the switch, no more fossil fuel — it’s literally impossible. We would crush the economy.
So what is the transition plan? I hate seeing people that are getting cancer because of the aftereffects of coal ash. I hate seeing respiratory problems in low-income communities that have no political or financial might to fight back against a smokestack in their neighborhood. There’s definitely a way we can do it if we stop allowing these powerful companies to just feed us BS.
And now, here’s what’s happening around the West:
A well-funded new ad campaign in swing states will feature climate scientists who are also moms talking about their concerns for their kids. Here’s the story from my colleague Anna M. Phillips. The ad campaign is getting underway as scientists report that 2020 tied 2016 as Earth’s hottest year on record, with hurricanes, fires and other climate-fueled weather events causing U.S. disaster costs to double to $95 billion, as Henry Fountain and Christopher Flavelle report for the New York Times.
Last week’s violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol had ties to anti-government extremist violence on public lands in the West. Carl Segerstrom reviewed the history for High Country News, including the Bundy family’s armed standoff over illegal grazing in Nevada and the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In her independent newsletter, journalist Leah Sottile writes that we all should have taken Malheur more seriously and warns that we should expect this type of violence to continue.
A judge has ruled that Porter Ranch residents can seek damages from Southern California Gas over health impacts from the Aliso Canyon gas leak. The trial is expected to begin later this year, Olga Grigoryants reports for the Los Angeles Daily News. Elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley, The Times’ Lila Seidman reports that regional air quality officials have slapped Los Angeles with a “notice of violation” over the multiyear methane leak at a gas plant in Sun Valley, a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
As Joe Biden’s team works on plans for a “just transition” to clean energy jobs in fossil fuel-dependent communities, Wyoming’s Republican governor says the state might have to abandon whole towns. That is an actual detail in this story by the Washington Post’s Tim Craig about huge Republican gains in statehouses in November. One reason abandoning towns is on the table is resistance to cleaner energy. As one local official in Wyoming told High Country News’ Jane C. Hu: “People who have made their living in oil, gas and coal — they feel like if you like wind, you’re cheating on your wife. ... But we need every piece of it.”
Even one of the top contractors on California’s bullet train says the project is wildly behind schedule. In a blistering letter, the contractor blames state agencies for failing to acquire many parcels of land in the Central Valley, although the company itself is also responsible for some of the delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns, as Ralph Vartabedian reports for The Times.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal includes $1.5 billion to help shift California away from oil-fueled cars and $1 billion to prevent and fight fires. More details here from the Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde, including reactions from environmental groups.
AROUND THE WEST
Famed architect Frank Gehry has unveiled a plan to build a series of parks and other public spaces along the concrete-lined Los Angeles River. Here’s the story from my colleague Louis Sahagún, who reports that Gehry’s plans have backing from government officials but have drawn criticism from environmental groups for adding concrete to the river rather than removing it.
California is looking dry, dry, dry for the foreseeable future. We’re right in the middle of the historically wettest part of the rainy season, and there’s no rain in the forecast, Michael Williams reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. But one irony of the climate crisis is that when we do get rain, it tends to come in increasingly devastating downpours. New Stanford research finds that rising temperatures are already responsible for one-third of flood damage nationwide, the Chronicle’s Kurtis Alexander reports.
The coolest climate solution you’ve probably never heard of: bamboo. I was fascinated to read this story by Audrey Gray for Inside Climate News, which explores the huge carbon-sucking potential of a plant — technically a grass — long seen as a nuisance. The story includes reporting from California’s Imperial County, where bamboo could help mitigate Salton Sea dust storms.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
The Trump administration’s oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge basically flopped. Just half of the 22 available parcels got bids, and only two were from actual companies as opposed to Alaska’s state government, as Henry Fountain reports for the New York Times. But on public lands elsewhere — particularly in New Mexico in Wyoming — Trump administration officials issued more oil and gas permits than ever during their final months in power, an Associated Press analysis finds.
Lithium-ion batteries are dominant right now, but could other energy storage chemistries make a splash? Dan Gearino had a good rundown for Inside Climate News on various startups worth watching. In the San Diego area, meanwhile, a cluster of zinc-based batteries will soon participate in California energy markets, Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Also in San Diego County, a new government-run electricity provider claims Sempra-owned San Diego Gas & Electric is trying to undermine its launch — by lowering electricity rates just beforehand. Rob Nikolewski explains what’s going on.
ONE MORE THING
In a country where military bases, university buildings and other institutions continue to bear the names of Confederate leaders, slaveholders and other disreputable figures, it should be no surprise that some mountain peaks may also need renaming.
In an opinion piece for the L.A. Times, history professor Andrew Offenburger says Mts. Baden-Powell and Burnham in the San Gabriels are two such peaks named for white supremacists. “This issue is about much more than two men in slouch hats and khakis,” he writes. “It’s about the legacy of empire, the common system that shaped southern Africa, Mexico and the American West.”
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