"Clean energy does not need to be a partisan issue. In fact, it's really bad if it is," said Amanda Ormand, a renewable energy consultant and expert on solar energy issues. "Making energy political is not in our best interest." Ormand told me this in a bustling coffee shop in Tempe, Ariz., this past spring. I almost snorted coffee out of my nose. Energy -- an apolitical, nonpartisan issue? In this day and age? Really?
After all, it's fairly clear who's on whose side these days: Democrats -- pushed by environmentalists -- support renewable energy of all types, and Republicans -- backed by the fossil fuel lobby -- tend to bash green energy. So Ormond's words seemed pretty pie-in-the-sky.
At the time we spoke, battles over solar and net metering in Arizona, where the state's largest utility wants to slash the amount it credits homeowners for producing their own electricity, were just beginning. Similar fights were emerging elsewhere: Idaho and California regulators were debating cutting incentives for solar, and Montana regulators sought to follow Idaho's lead -- as detailed by Steve Ernst in this issue's cover story -- by making it tougher for wind power projects to sell their electricity to utilities. Republicans took over the utility regulatory commissions in both Arizona and Montana last November, and Idaho's politics are deep red through-and-through. Renewables appeared to be doomed.
But as is often the case in the West, partisan lines blurred once the real action started. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission voted against Idaho Power, and in favor of renewables, rejecting a proposal that would have raised rates on homeowners with rooftop solar panels. And in Arizona, a group called Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed is led by none other than Barry Goldwater Jr., a former California GOP congressman whose father was an Arizona Republican icon. Goldwater's no outlier; he's been joined by the founder of the Scottsdale Tea Party and other local Republican business leaders.
Maybe Ormond wasn't dreaming, after all. It's probably too early to call it a trend, but a conservative movement embracing rooftop solar seems to be emerging. Even in Georgia, Tea Partiers have come out in favor of solar, drawing scorn from the state chapter of the ultra-conservative, Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity. But these Republicans for renewables aren't acting because of climate change; they're supporting backyard and rooftop solar in order to favor small-time entrepreneurs over monopoly utilities. They see rooftop solar as a private-property right and a way to achieve a measure of individual energy independence.
The ultimate influence of this movement remains to be seen: Arizona, California and Montana regulators have not ruled yet on the aforementioned proposals. More important is that a few folks have stepped over the partisan lines in order to get something done. And that's a very good thing.