13 Nov 2014

Look out Virginia, Florida and Wisconsin, here comes Tea Party leader and solar advocate Debbie Dooley

Written by Jim Pierobon

When Debbie Dooley seized the mantle as solar energy’s newest and most vocal champion in Georgia last year, solar advocates in other states began wondering how they could replicate her efforts. Well they may have an answer as Dooley is testing the ‘waters’ in Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin. South Carolina, Louisiana and Kansas may not be far behind.

Dooley, who co-founded the Atlanta Tea Party and is spearheading a national push to challenge laws that provide monopoly control over electricity sales by regulated utilities, recently launched “Conservatives for Energy Freedom” in Florida. She is also working with the coalition of advocates aligned with the “Green Tea Coalition” principles in Virginia; and she recently completed a speaking tour in Wisconsin.

Debbie Dooley

Tea Party organizer Debbie Dooley is taking her advocacy for solar energy and against utility monopolies to Florida, Virginia, and Wisconsin. CREDIT: MSNBC

“The difference between Florida and Georgia,” Dooley said, “is conservatives (in Georgia) are leading the way to push for more solar and to allow energy freedom. In Florida, (conservatives) put up roadblocks. It’s appalling,” she recently told the Tampa Bay Times. “The Republicans should be leading the way for Florida in this. It’s violating free market principles.”

As the cost of buying rooftop solar systems continues to decline, Dooley’s message is beginning to resonate even in states that lack robust markets, incentives for solar and utilities committed to be solution providers. The combination of the 30% federal Investment Tax Credit, which is due to expire at year-end 2016, and the growing options for leasing and financing solar systems are opening eyes and pocketbooks as homeowners with suitable rooftops calculate potential savings on their utility bills.

What irks Dooley the most, she said in a recent telephone interview, are:

1. How mostly Republican state lawmakers opposed to solar energy benefit – and stay in office – thanks in large part to campaign contributions from investor-owned utilities;

2. How utility monopolies are acting more in the interests of their executives and shareholders than they are their ratepayers/ customers; and

3. Electricity rates keep climbing and most ratepayers can’t do anything about it – for now.

Rates are being further inflated by charges to help some utilities in the Southeast U.S. build new nuclear power reactors – long before they generate one kilowatt of electricity. “It dawned on me that conservatives have been brainwashed for decades,” Dooley said. “That needs to change. We need strong conservative voices out there delivering the message that homeowners should be able to decide for themselves. We have to make the monopoly the boogeyman.”

When Dooley examined her Georgia Power electricity bill, she realized how complicated it can be for most ratepayers to know what rate they are paying. And that makes if difficult to calculate savings from properly engineered rooftop solar systems. If more ratepayers understood what they are paying for electricity, Dooley asserted, the more they would grasp the benefits of a rooftop solar system.

Investor-owned utilities are not taking the threat that solar energy poses lying down. Florida utilities reportedly have petitioned the state Public Service Commission to all but scrap their energy efficiency and conservation goals. Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power recently pulled out of a collaboration in Virginia designed to determine ways to value the societal and economic benefits of rooftop solar systems. Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light, like Dominion and Appalachian Power, are developing, or have announced they will develop, small solar systems but they want to control them.

The message to ratepayers and the solar industry by utilities Dooley is hearing is clear: we don’t want to have to compete with our customers. It’s a bit like Ma Bell telling telephone users and utility commissioners back in the 1980s that they will develop wireless networks but only for their own use, not end-users’. Just think if upstart phone companies like MCI hadn’t broken the monopoly stranglehold on long-distance telephone service. Today, a month doesn’t go buy when more homes are dropping their wire-line phone connections and opting to rely solely on individual cell phones.

When asked about the obligation that regulated energy utilities have to supply and deliver electricity reliably to all users, including low-income households who cannot afford to install solar on their homes, Dooley doesn’t back off. As a monopoly provider, it’s their job to figure that out, she says. If they can’t oblige, then they should stop effectively blocking third-party ownership of solar systems, net metering proposals and efforts by solar installers and non-profit organizations to aggregate buyers into purchasing pools under “community power” proposals.

“People who don’t like big government don’t like monopoly utilities, either,” said Kimberly V. Davis, a lead organizer in Virginia of a solar coalition based on energy freedom. “People who believe in property rights believe that includes the right to generate their own energy from a freely available resource. People want self-reliance, independence, resiliency, and energy security.” Davis said one driver politically for many elected officials in Virginia is the upside potential of creating jobs to fill the growing void left by cutbacks in U.S. defense spending and hundreds of defense contractors lost throughout Northern Virginia. Solar can help do that, Davis asserted.

With Dooley leading the charge, Wisconsinites have a similar opportunity to stand up to the state’s largest utility, We Energy, in favor of free-market energy, Dooley wrote recently in this commentary in Midwest Energy News: “Conservatives may be stuck living with monopolies in Wisconsin, but they don’t have to tolerate the misuse of monopoly power . . . We Energies is abusing its power by restricting customer access to solar—perpetuating energy security vulnerabilities,” she said. “We Energies is also abusing fairness, by generating record shareholder returns while proposing to sharply increase prices on those with a fixed-income (just as Wisconsin residents my age start to retire),” Dooley added. ”The company is also stifling innovation by blocking third-party ownership for solar and attacking the integrity of net metering.”

Dooley, who was one of 22 persons on a conference call last year to organize an initial round of green tea parties last year, draws on her Christian upbringing as she reflects back on why this has become her cause célèbre. “We were taught, and conservatives need to heed, that we need to be good stewards of the world God created. I really needed to become that voice.”

While successfully pushing to enable solar markets in Georgia, Dooley earned the respect and backing of Georgia utility commissioner “Bubba” McDonald, formerly a Republican member of the state legislature. McDonald himself has reportedly challenged Florida to live up to its name as the Sunshine State and pass laws enabling markets for solar energy systems.

In her travels outside of Atlanta, Dooley gravitates toward one sound bite that she says is beginning to resonate outside her home base: “Utilities like to socialize the costs but privatize the profits for their fellow executives and company shareholders,” Dooley said. That message earned her an invite to speak in Washington, DC November 18, 2014 at Solar Focus, the annual conference organized by the Maryland-DC-Virginia chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

When asked to respond to a familiar utility refrain about the need to serve low-income customers and not make special accommodations for homeowners who can afford solar, Dooley quickly responds: “We are adding the choice of solar not forcing solar on anyone . . . Building new power plants hurt low income customers because their rates are raised to pay for it.”

Dooley is learning that in Virginia, no proposal affecting electricity stands a realistic chance of becoming law unless it has the stated or implied support of Dominion Virginia Power. Lax campaign rules allow corporations and individuals to contribute as much money as they want. All that is required is for candidates and lawmakers to publicly report the contributions. The next states likely to be hearing from Dooley include South Carolina, Louisiana and Kansas.

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