Seth Shulman is a senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran science journalist and author of six books. This article will appear in Shulman's monthly column 'Got Science?' Shulman contributed this piece to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
With partisan politics all too often trumping science-based solutions these days, it's especially heartening when people overcome political differences to let solid data point the way toward practical solutions. That's what happened in Georgia last month when state regulators voted to require Georgia Power Co., the state's sole investor-owned electricity provider, to expand the use of solar power in its energy mix.
Regulators on the state's (all-Republican) Public Service Commission voted 3 to 2 in favor of a plan that requires Atlanta-based Georgia Power to increase its solar power capacity by 525 megawatts by the end of 2016. The decision comes on the heels of the announcement that Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co., is planning to retire more than 2,000 megawatts' worth of coal-fired generating-capacity.
The vote in Georgia is notable for the commonsense outcome of adding more cost-effective, renewable energy in a state ranked fifth in the nation for solar potential, but just 21st for installed solar capacity. But the real surprise here, after more than a year of often-acrimonious debate, is the nearly unprecedented coalition that made the decision possible — a mixture of not just environmentalists and solar advocates but also conservative lawmakers and Tea Party members.
The latter groups in particular had to face down a barrage of misinformation from Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an organization founded and underwritten by the fossil fuel billionaire David Koch of Koch Industries, whose predecessor organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, helped found the Tea Party. AFP's local chapter mounted a scare campaign against solar power in Georgia, defending the bottom line of Koch Industries, a fossil fuel conglomerate, even as the campaign played fast and loose with the facts.
For example, Virginia Galloway, director of AFP's Georgia chapter, warned the group's 50,000 members that the solar proposal would "reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home" and could increase Georgia electricity rates by up to 40 percent. As the Associated Press pointed out, neither of those claims bore much resemblance to the truth. In fact, at the commission hearing before the vote, Kevin Greene, Georgia Power's attorney, said that the utility didn't believe the solar requirement would cause any increase in electricity prices for ratepayers.
All of which underscores the really surprising part: even the Tea Party faithful didn't seem to buy the AFP line this time around. Despite the mass emails, handouts and phone calls organized by AFP's Georgia chapter, when the group held a protest during the Public Service Commission deliberations, hardly anyone showed up.
What's more, a separate branch of the Tea Party in Georgia, known as the Tea Party Patriots, came out strongly in favor of more solar power in the state. Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told the press: "AFP Georgia is putting out absolutely false data" that doesn't take into account the fact that "solar prices have plummeted" in recent years. Dooley quipped that her group was forming "a Green Tea Coalition" because it saw the proposed solar expansion as a free market issue that "gives consumers more choice."
Solar power is growing for good reason
Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the facts in the energy sector speak for themselves. As Georgia regulators wisely recognized, he says, the price of coal has risen, while prices for solar panels have dropped some 60 percent since 2011.
The fact is, solar has been one of the nation's fastest-growing industries for the past several years, now supporting more than 100,000 jobs at 5,600 companies operating in every state in the nation. With the rate of utility solar installations more than doubling since 2012, the United States is now on track to add another 4,400 megawatts of photovoltaic power in 2013.
Some electric utilities have noted all of this with considerable alarm. For example, a recent report distributed by the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's main trade group, calls the growth of small-scale solar systems the "largest near-term threat" to electric utilities and warns of a disruption to the industry similar to the one wrought by cellphones on the landline telephone industry.
Next up: Arizona
Recently, utilities in a number of states have sought to fight back against solar energy by charging extra fees to customers with rooftop solar panels. Moves to change net metering arrangements, which allow homeowners to sell excess solar energy back to utilities, were notably beaten back this spring in both Louisiana and Idaho, hardly states known for liberal politics or environmental activism.
The latest battleground is Arizona — whose largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service Company — has similarly asked regulators to raise electric rates for residential customers who install solar photovoltaic systems at their homes. And, as in Georgia, the battle lines are forging some surprising alliances. In this case, Barry Goldwater, Jr. — son of the late politician who served five terms in the U.S. Senate and whose name is practically synonymous with conservatism in America — is among those leading the fight for solar power. Goldwater headed a recently formed organization called TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed).
Jacobs notes that the populist nature of rooftop solar power seems to be causing a paradigm shift in many people's political perspectives. "Instead of being forced to buy power from a monopoly, people now have a real option to go buy rooftop solar panels, as they would a television or a refrigerator. There's no question that this aspect is particularly appealing to a segment of the population that prefers the free market and doesn't want utilities or [a] government to mandate what they do."
While groups like AFP are unlikely to heed the message anytime soon, there is every indication in the solar energy field that the political terrain is starting to shift dramatically.
Shulman's most recent op-ed was "Got Science? Pushing Back Against Corporate 'Counterfeit Science'." This article will appear in Shulman's blog 'Got Science?' on the UCS website. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.