Rick Perry’s tenure as Trump’s Secretary of Energy has been bumpy. Most recently, Perry was roundly criticized for calling for more subsidies for coal and nuclear industries. But one move by the department that has drawn far less attention could spell big trouble for the clean energy revolution. That’s why we’re acting now to fight back.
In September, the Department of Energy made a call for information to help craft a study of solar energy—specifically the policy known as ‘net metering.’ This is one of the key mechanisms that makes renewable energy more affordable, by allowing people with solar panels on their rooftops to sell energy they generate (but don't use) back into the grid.
Net metering has helped expand solar energy around the country. Naturally, that means it is strongly opposed by the fossil fuel industry and other corporate special interests affiliated with the Koch Brothers, in particular the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
An open call for research isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. But the Energy Department appears to be deliberately excluding some of the most important benefits of net metering from its analysis. This leads us to believe this is not a good faith research project; it is a stealth attack on solar power.
The Energy Department says it will exclude information about the “costs and benefits of distributed solar generation” beyond net metering, as well as anything about the "indirect cost/benefits" of solar power. But this narrow view excludes some of the most powerful arguments in favor of clean energy. Any serious effort to understand the benefits of solar power must necessarily include the obviously positive impacts of reducing air pollution and harmful greenhouse gas emissions. These should not really be considered ‘indirect’ benefits, since we’re talking about steps we must take to maintain a livable planet.
Limiting the scope of this study in order to ensure that the conclusions are in line with what fossil fuel industry wants is bad science and terrible public policy.
Attacking net metering isn’t new. ALEC and its corporate cronies have waged a war on solar in several states, in order to prop up dirty energy. And we’ve seen the harmful effects of these campaigns. In Massachusetts, restrictive solar caps put the brakes on solar expansion. The same was true in Hawaii, where we saw steep declines in solar development as a result. In Nevada, state leaders reversed course after seeing a plunge in solar installations after a well-coordinated legislative attack on net metering. Does the Energy Department really want to repeat these mistakes across the country?
The federal government should not be looking for reason to curtail net metering; it should be finding ways to expand its benefits. Right now, the upfront costs associated with installing rooftop solar panels are too expensive for most homeowners; some states have pursued innovative policies to address this problem. And net metering could help develop community solar projects, which are a perfect option for those who either don’t own property or have other limitations on installing solar panels. So there's plenty of room to grow these kinds of programs and make clean energy more accessible and affordable.
Setting up a bogus study to undercut solar energy to favor fossil fuel corporations is something the Trump White House hopes won't attract much attention. We can make sure this bad idea gets all the attention—and opposition—it deserves.