“Americans for Prosperity just lost,” said the solar power activist, moments after the Georgia Public Service Commission, a group of five elected Republicans who regulate the state’s utilities, voted 3-2, Thursday, to accept an amendment that would add 525 megawatts of solar power for the state’s electricity customers over the next 20 years. “AFP Georgia,” he added, “is going down.”
American for Prosperity is a conservative community activist group funded by Charles and David Koch, whose Koch Industries is in the fossil fuel and power plant business, among other things. They also already have a rather large footprint in the Peach State, where their wholly owned subsidiary, Georgia-Pacific, a paper and wood products company, is headquartered.
The AFP in Georgia was mobilized to take on what should have been a no-brainer in a solidly red state, resistant to new things – to say that solar was too unreliable, too expensive and costs people jobs. They also don’t like it because it gets incentives from the Obama administration.
But just because the big guys were behind it, it doesn’t mean all of the state’s conservative groups marched in lockstep with them. The Tea Party Patriots, one of the oldest TP organizations in the country, fell in with the solar industry, to form what original Tea Party co-founder, Debbie Dooley calls a “Green Tea Coalition.”
“When this issue first came up,” admits Tea Party Patriot, Ed Painter, who attended Thursday’s PSC hearing, “I had the same reaction that most conservatives had on solar power, which is absolutely negative. It was uneconomical, uncompetitive crony capitalism.”
Painter said that this plan is different because it “is a free market plan, where in the end, the consumers stand to benefit greatly.” Because of that, he said, “It changed my mind, not on how solar power is done in general, but on this project.”
In Georgia, as in most states, the state licensed utility – in this case, Georgia Power Company – has a monopoly on anything to do with the electrical infrastructure. Georgia Solar Utilities said the PSC decision changes that. “The solar industry will have an opportunity to go head-to-head with other energy sources in an open and fair bid process,” they wrote in a statement, after the final vote. “The Commission also showed the people of our state that they believe Georgia businesses can get the job done when it comes to home-grown electricity.”
The solar plan “require[s] a utility to accept competitive bids,” Painter agrees. He added that his Tea Party group believes it will be good for utility customers, and “a model for other states to follow.”
But to hear PSC Commissioner Stan Wise describe it, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots are “confused” about the facts. After the vote, in remarks that he apparently prepared for the occasion, Wise described the approval of that much solar power infrastructure a “Washington type, feel good public policy” and a “social engineering project.”
He also recited the AFP talking points about the approved plan, claiming that he has always voted as a conservative, and because the majority ignored the pleas of AFP and other Tea Party organizations, they had somehow relinquished their conservative credentials in Georgia. “Through all of this,” he said, “I have never left my conservative roots.”
With the utility preparing to close more than a dozen coal fired power plants across the state, while converting some others to natural gas, Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald presented the amendment to Georgia Power’s integrated resource plan that allowed the expansion of solar. Pollution regulations, specifically the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxins Standards, are coming online, and, McDonald said, he doesn’t want to have to wait until it becomes too expensive to make these electrical infrastructure changes, later on. “I don’t want the rates to go up, not a kilowatt cent,” he said, “but I do want the lights to come on.”
So what brings the Tea Party Patriots together with a group an environmental group like the Sierra Club, that has a somewhat different definition of quality of life? “Cheap energy, and abundant energy, is critical to everybody,” offered Painter. “It provides jobs. It provides infrastructure. [And] now that it’s become a free market issue, it’s great, because you have interests that at times butted heads, all of a sudden have a common cause.
“When you have them getting together and pushing [back],” he advised, “the [state] legislators get very upset because they’re used to being able to splinter the citizens at the grass roots into opposing groups and letting them fight amongst each other. This is the most effective way to get something done.”