By James Bruggers
February 5, 2018 - A national "consumer" group is working with Frankfort, Kentucky lawmakers, making phone calls to their constituents and urging Kentuckians to support a bill that would roll back incentives for solar power.
But who are they?
Not your typical, looking-out-for-the-little-guy consumer organization.
Think oil, gas, coal and trucking companies, for example. And electric utilities.
Claire Williams said she got one of those calls Monday and it sounded like the caller was super friendly to the kind of rooftop solar panels that provide electricity to her Louisville home.
"It was all about helping solar to grow," Williams recalled. It sounded so green, she said she was "wondering if there was another bill I didn't know about."
But in fact, the caller was urging her to tell her Frankfort lawmaker to support Rep. Jim Gooch's bill — the one that solar power advocates see as a potential death knell to Kentucky's fledgling rooftop solar industry.
"It was misleading," Williams said, adding that she's actually urging lawmakers to reject House Bill 227, which would slash credits that utilities must pay solar panel owners for any extra electricity they produce.
It had its first hearing Wednesday afternoon. There was no vote taken, presumably because Gooch didn't have the votes he needed to pass it.
The call to Williams was likely made by someone from a group called Consumer Energy Alliance. The Houston-based organization claims 450,000 members, according to its spokeswoman, Emily Haggstrom, including 5,500 in Kentucky. She confirmed it has been calling people on behalf of the bill.
Whether those membership numbers are accurate or not — there was no way of telling — the alliance is a front group operated by a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.
According to it own website, it's backed primarily by dozens of industries, chambers of commerce, manufacturing associations and oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell Oil and Marathon, and The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, whose members include electricity generators, coal producers, railroads, barge operators, and equipment manufacturers.
The alliance was recently featured in an investigation by the nonprofit, nonpartisan and Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News, titled: "How Fossil Fuel Allies Are Tearing Apart Ohio's Embrace of Clean Energy."
ICN reported that the alliance is "a lobbying group that has been challenged before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for submitting public comment letters from individuals who later said in sworn statements that they never signed them. The (alliance) withdrew a petition in Wisconsin after a local reporter found that some people who signed it actually opposed the utility rate changes CEA was pushing."
Haggstrom, it turns out, also works for HBW Resources, the D.C. lobbying firm.
And Brydon Ross, the alliance's vice president for state affairs, does similar work for HBW. Ross told me he lives in Louisville and that HBW has a management contract with the alliance.
Haggstrom at first denied that Brydon was a lobbyist in Kentucky, describing him simply as a Kentucky resident with an interest in energy issues. But state records show his interest is more than mere curiosity. He registered as a lobbyist in Kentucky last year, citing the alliance as his employer.
The pitch they're making is all about helping solar, not hurting it, even if their bill slashes the benefits of rooftop solar. "We're pro-solar," Brydon told me. "We want solar to grow."
There was this headline on a recent press release: Consumer Groups Launch New Pro-Solar Campaign in Kentucky.
It announced the establishment of a single new grassroots-sounding, "Kentuckians for Solar Fairness."
But it appears to be just another part of the alliance. With its quotes of support from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Manufacturers Association, two powerful business lobby groups in Frankfort, it has all the feel of AstroTurf, instead of grassroots.
The bill the alliance supports threatens to cut by more than two-thirds the credits residential solar customers can get back from utilities. That could double the years needed for solar investments to pay for themselves, from about 10 to 20, said Steve Ricketts, co-owner and general manager of Solar Energy Solutions, with offices in Louisville and Lexington.
Big business and out-of-state companies and advocacy organizations of all stripes have every right to work the system legally to get lawmakers on their side. In this case, they argue that poor customers with no solar panels are subsidizing wealthy ones with solar panels and not paying their fair share of utilities fixed costs.
That's a sharply disputed point, and so far, there's been no independent study to weigh the costs and benefits in Kentucky of rooftop solar to utilities and their customers.
On Wednesday, Louisville attorney Tom FitzGerald suggested lawmakers have the Kentucky Public Service Commission look into that question.
"The argument that net-metering customers aren’t paying their fair share is simply not the case," FitzGerald said. "This is all about (utilities) stifling competition."
The commission could work with utilities and other vested interests before lawmakers change the current net metering law, which spells out how owners of solar panels get credit for the excess energy they produce.
Ricketts has argued such a study would be in consumers' best interest.