As a founder of the Tea Party movement, Debbie Dooley may be an unlikely advocate for renewable energy. But in an e360 interview, she explains why she is breaking ranks with fellow conservatives and promoting a Florida ballot initiative that would allow homeowners to sell power produced by rooftop solar.
Debbie Dooley’s conservative credentials are impeccable. She was one of the founding members of the Tea Party movement and continues to sit on the board of the Tea Party Patriots. She also serves as chairperson of the Atlanta Tea Party.
But on the issue of solar power, Dooley breaks the mold. To the consternation of some of her fellow conservatives, she has teamed up with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, first in Georgia and now in Florida, to form the Green Tea Coalition. It’s an unlikely mix of conservative, environmental and other groups whose focus includes campaigning against the maintenance fees that utility companies charge solar customers. In Florida, the group is working to get an initiative on the ballot that would allow individuals and businesses to sell power directly to consumers.
In this interview with Yale e360, Dooley explains her motivations behind the solar energy campaign and why she’s willing to go up against conservative organizations when it comes to this issue.
Yale Environment 360: How did solar energy come to be such a priority for you?
Debbie Dooley: My foray into becoming a strong advocate for decentralized energy began with a fight with a government-created monopoly in Georgia, Georgia Power. I believed that they had far too much power. They received permission that would allow them to bill me, a utility customer, in advance for two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in south Georgia that might never come online. Then I found out that there were massive [construction] cost overruns predicted on these two nuclear reactors. So, to add insult to injury, not only was I paying in advance for nuclear reactors that I may never see the benefit of because I could move out of state or drop dead or whatever, I was also paying for the cost overruns and [Georgia Power was] making a guaranteed profit off of the cost overruns. So it was a fight with a government-created monopoly that led me to do a lot of research into decentralized energy. Now, I support all decentralized energy.
The reason I am so focused on solar now is because I believe that solar empowers the people. I believe that solar equals energy freedom. The average person cannot go out and construct a new power plant, they can’t put a nuclear reactor on their rooftop, they can’t go out and build a big windfarm. But they can install solar panels on their rooftop and become energy independent. Also, during my research I found out that there is nothing more centralized in our nation nor at risk of a terrorist attack than our power grid. The National Energy Regulatory Commission found that a terrorist would just have to take down nine key substations out of more than 54,000 and it would cause a blackout from coast to coast. So that made it even more important and even more vital for me to push for decentralized energy and, in particular, solar.
e360: Describe how the Green Tea Coalition came about, and some of your member organizations.
Dooley: We’re made up of activists from different organizations. During my fight against Georgia Power, I was approached by Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter director, Colleen Kiernan, and some other activists from Sierra Club, and it appeared that we both supported legislation that would cut the profits that Georgia Power makes on the cost overruns of their two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. So we began to work together on that bill. And Colleen Kiernan also came to me about a Public Service Commission race that was taking place in 2012. She knew that I did not like the Public Service commissioner who was up for reelection because I saw him as a puppet of Georgia Power. So we met for lunch, and we started working together to advocate for the Georgia Public Service Commission to add more solar to Georgia Power’s integrated resource plan.
So the Public Service Commissioners decided that they were going to ask Georgia Power to add more solar to their integrated resource plan. Americans for Prosperity [a conservative political advocacy group] called it a mandate. It was not a mandate. They [Americans for Prosperity] said that electricity rates would increase by 40 percent. That was absolutely not true. They called it their Keep the Lights On campaign, and they ran ads that said, ‘Hey, if more solar’s added, your small appliances may not work, you may have blackouts.’ So we pushed back very strongly against Americans for Prosperity.
e360: Why it was important to get more solar energy into the portfolio of that company. In this case, we’re still talking about the grid and a monopoly.
Dooley: The reason that was important is because solar is relatively cheap. Every time a monopoly, a utility has to go out and construct an expensive power plant or nuclear plant, they make a guaranteed profit off of the construction. With solar, there’s no incentive for these utilities to build solar farms and create jobs because they don’t make as much profit because solar farms are a lot more economical than building a new coal plant or a nuclear reactor [the cost of which is passed on to ratepayers]. Georgia Power has finally seen the light as far as solar because they’ve agreed and they supported a third party solar leasing deal that passed the Georgia House of Representatives without one dissenting vote. And it’s expected to pass the Senate. A few months later, Georgia Power wanted to add a tax on solar users. They called it a fee, but we called it a tax. And we worked with Sierra Club to defeat that.
e360: You’ve been working to get an initiative on the 2016 Florida ballot that would allow individuals and businesses to sell power directly to consumers and would also allow for power purchase agreements in which solar companies pay the solar panel installation cost and homeowners then just pay for the power they use. You’ve described Florida as ground zero when it comes to solar energy. Why?
Dooley: They have a lot of policies in Florida that actually effectively block the sun. So you have the Sunshine State that has policies put in place by these powerful utilities to stifle competition, and I just felt like something needed to be done. So I started working with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and we formed a coalition that includes a couple of environmental groups, the Florida Retail Association Federation, and Conservatives for Energy Freedom. That’s the group that I formed last summer that consists of conservatives such as the Christian Coalition, the Libertarian Party of Florida, the Florida Republican Liberty Caucus, and a statewide tea party group called the Tea Party Nation. We’re pushing a ballot initiative allowing you to sell up to two megawatts, so it’s not like you can go out and build a giant solar farm and power the city.
And I think this ballot initiative is going to win. Within five to six weeks’ time, we collected over 100,000 signatures, with left and right working together. You have people [in the coalition] who don’t like coal, who believe in climate change, and you have some who don’t believe in climate change but they believe in free market choice and competition. And we’re all working together to do something good for the people of Florida because Floridians deserve choice.
e360: What’s it like for you to work with the Sierra Club?
Dooley: We actually work together pretty well. There are things we disagree on, but we don’t talk about them. I have always believed that the real power is with the people. And there are a lot of the elite, whether the progressive elite or the conservative elite, that want to keep all the power. They really don’t like the fact that the people, the grassroots, are deciding…
We’re going to work together to accomplish something. Those on the left believe in climate change and coal’s bad. Those on the right don’t like government-created monopolies — we believe in free-market choice and national security. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are, as long as we work together to accomplish a common goal. That’s all that matters, and we’re much more successful when we’re able to do that.
e360: So I imagine climate change is one of those topics that you don’t discuss over lunch with your Sierra Club counterpart?
Dooley: No. I don’t. I do believe man is damaging the environment. Now whether or not it’s [through human-caused climate change] or whatever it is, that’s something I really haven’t taken a position on.
e360: Do you think that there’s a political price to be paid for aligning with groups such as the Sierra Club?
Dooley: Well, in the beginning, there was. When we first formed the coalition the Sierra Club’s members said, “We can’t believe you’re working with the Tea Party.” And our Tea Party groups said, “Oh, you’re working with the tree huggers, these militant environmentals.” But the funny thing that happened is that we got to know each other and we understood that the stereotypes did not fit all of us. So we ignored that and we worked together.
e360: Your archenemy on the Florida initiative, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, says the initiative is about propping up an industry that depends on taxpayer-funded subsidies. What’s your position on the solar energy tax credit that’s due to substantially decrease in a couple of years?
Dooley: I would say 85 to 90 percent of the conservatives do not realize that coal and and fossil fuel have been very heavily subsidized since the 1930s and they are still being very heavily subsidized. During the first 15 years of nuclear — nuclear subsidies from the federal government accounted for one percent of the federal budget. Despite all the talks about the subsidies solar has received, solar during its first 15 years has only accounted for one tenth of one percent of federal subsidy.
I believe that subsidies are the government’s way of picking winners and losers. But it’s wrong to subsidize one energy form and then you let tax credits or subsidies expire for another energy form. So, to these elected officials who want the solar tax credit to expire, I say let’s expire all of the direct and indirect subsidies and tax credits that coal, nuclear, and oil are receiving as well. If they want to continue with the fossil fuel tax credits and the nuclear tax credits, then they should continue with the solar and wind tax credits. For every Solyndra they can point to, you can point to a nuclear reactor that’s over budget.
Conservatives need to do their research. Do your research and you’re going to come to the same conclusion that I have, that we’ve been manipulated by groups with interests in fossil fuel into believing that green energy is bad — and that’s wrong. Unless they’re going to expire the fossil fuel tax credits and nuclear tax credits all at the same time, then they need to keep the solar tax credit. If you take away all these subsidies, everyone’s going to see the true cost of energy in this nation.
e360: The Washington Post recently published an investigative piece on the strategy utility companies are using to combat the boom in rooftop solar power. Part of that offensive involves monthly maintenance fees for customers with solar panels. Utilities say that’s only fair since these customers still need the grid occasionally and what’s more, without these fees, it’s the less affluent, who can’t afford to install solar panels, who’ll be left to bear the brunt of paying for the upkeep of infrastructure. What’s your take on that point of view?
Dooley: Well, I think it’s a tax. It’s an attempt by these utilities to keep an outdated model afloat for a few years longer. They tried that in Georgia, and we successfully fought it back. What’s fair about me being told I must purchase my electricity from a government-created monopoly? What’s fair about me having to pay for power plants in advance and to subsidize these utility companies’ unwise investments? And solar benefits everyone, it doesn’t just benefit the ones that have it. If there’s less wear and tear on the equipment, that means that they’re not going to have to buy new equipment. If there’s less demand for the very expensive daytime peak hours, that means they’re not going to have to construct new power plants.
e360: You often refer to your infant grandchild and your hopes for his future. You say that you want him to be able to be self-sufficient when it comes to powering his own home, and live in a clean world where he doesn’t have to worry about dirty air, dirty water, or dirty environment. That sounds like something any grandmother in the Sierra Club would say. So I’m wondering how much of your stance on solar energy has to do with energy independence and support of free markets versus creating a non-polluting source of power?
Dooley: Well, probably 75/25 — 75 percent free markets and national security, 25 percent I want clean air. I support all energy, I’m not anti-coal. I look at things from a fiscally responsible manner and any kind of cleanup or spill somewhere down the line … the taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill for it by virtue of tax credits, subsidies, etc. It’s a lot more fiscally responsible to stop the damage than it is to try to clean up and repair the damage.