How the Far Right Developed an
From the US to Australia, solar energy is increasingly supported as an individual right
against centralised control -- a headache for many conservatives
From the day in 1986 when president Ronald Reagan pulled down the solar array that had sat briefly atop the White House, conservative politicians in the US and elsewhere have had a growing antipathy towards renewables. Many conservatives, particularly those on the far right, simply refuse to believe solar can play a useful role in modern energy systems, and paint it as an unwarranted extension of government regulation.
It has frustrated many in the solar industry. "Let's make sure that before anyone paints me as some San Franciscan, solar-company-running, ultra-left-wing-fruitcake, please know that I am assuredly not," David Lorens, the founder of solar company One Block Off The Grid, wrote last year."I'm a fiscal conservative, I own a gun, and capitalism is the blood that runs through my veins. So back off."
Now, in the state of Georgia, there has been a dramatic split in conservative attitudes. The local branch of the Tea Party has aligned itself with solar interests and environmental NGOs to force the monopoly utility Georgia Power to open its network to more solar power. Ironically, it has little to do with the need to with climate goals. It is being fought -- as Lorens suggests -- as a property rights issue, pitting private citizens against utilities, regulators and fixed rates of return.
This push to elevate solar energy as an individual right is being carried by the new economic case for solar power: the plunging cost of solar modules -- they have fallen 80% in the last four years -- means households can install rooftop systems and lower their electricity bills. The emergence of these "prosumers" is challenging the revenue and the profit pool for network operators and fossil fuel generators.
Even analysts at major investment banks describe the proliferation of solar as unstoppable. The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents most investor owned utilities in the US, says solar is a direct threat to the centralised utility model, and could cause "irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects."
This explains why lobby groups are dead set against the Georgia solar decision. Americans for Prosperity, which like the Tea Party have been nurtured and sponsored by the Koch brothers oil billionaires, is dismissing the Georgia faction as an aberration, or even more damming, as a "green Tea Party." It has sought to turn the issue of rights on its head by arguing that rooftop solar will "infringe upon the territorial rights to the distribution grids" of the network operators.
It sets the stage for an intriguing clash of two strands of conservative thought -- one that remains true to its ideology of individual rights against centralised control, and the other where ideology is cherry-picked and co-opted for the protection of vested and incumbent interests.
In Australia, the party divide between left and right over support for renewables has pretty much gone in lockstep with the US. Carbon pricing is opposed by conservative parties, and there is lukewarm support for renewables targets. Ultra conservative think tanks argue against them. But in Western Australia, a move by the conservative state government to tear up contracts written by its state-owned network operator Synergy, and slash the tariffs that it had agreed to pay 75,000 households, was met with a revolt by its own backbenchers and was reversed within days after an uproar from households.
The decision was designed to save just $12m a year, and appears to be an attempt to shore up a deficit caused by the $300m wasted on a failed attempt to upgrade two generation units from the ageing and highly polluting Muja power stations.
But a more profound issue is the rate of solar adoption by households, even without subsidies. In recent weeks, the conservative energy ministers of NSW and Western Australia -- who have criticised the cost of renewable subsidies and sought to have renewable energy targets diluted or abandoned -- have expressed surprise at the rate of take-up. For doctor Mike Nahan, the WA energy minister who once headed the Institute of Public Affairs, the ultra-conservative think tank which still contends that solar is expensive waste of money, this is a particular challenge.
Last month, Nahan was quoted as saying some 2,000 households in WA were taking up rooftop solar each week -- many in the mortgage belt, in which the conservatives see their electoral base. "People are using less power and generating electricity by themselves rather than buying it," he said.
As in Georgia, this will come down as an issue that pits individual rights against those of a state-owned monopoly. Solar has already eaten a large chunk out of day-time demand across Australia, causing a retaliation by network operators (which some governments are trying to sell), and generators. Banning or restricting solar, or changing tariffs that penalises self consumption, as Nahan and other state bodies have canvassed, would risk an electoral backlash.That message has been delivered loud and clear by the turn of events in WA.
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