In North Carolina, lawmakers want to reverse renewable energy mandates and kill solar tax credits. In Nevada, a 3% cap on net metering is frustrating residential installers. In Colorado, the major utility wants to place prohibitive fees on customers going solar. In California, the public utilities commission is considering changes to net metering. Nationally, the ITC is in severe danger.
Clearly, solar installers have plenty to do to improve the market and political landscape in which they do work, but how does a political novice begin to make a difference? First, he or she must understand the challenge.
For a century, U.S. consumers have received electricity by way of a low-competition utility market. If you’ve ever bought electricity for your house, your selection of power providers was probably limited to one or two utilities. Solar—which generates electricity on your own roof—disrupts the utility-centric model for getting power. Currently, more than 200,000 solar arrays are challenging a standard that once seemed permanent.
The problem is that utilities have a long-cultivated, entrenched relationship with their local legislators and regulators, two groups that wield tremendous power over the solar industry. Legislators write laws and taxes; regulators approve fees and promote competition within the generation industry, when they deem appropriate.
Many of the aforementioned utilities either oppose or don’t understand the rise of distributed solar (though some progressive utilities have embraced the technology). Feeling threatened, they are visiting halls of power and using their lobbying prowess to oppose legislation and policies that would be supportive of our industry.
Prudent contractors, which should be any contractor planning to stay open beyond 2017 (when the ITC for residential solar likely disappears), will take an interest in visiting these places of power and shaping the decisions made there, too. Laws and policies impact bottom lines, and your efforts can make a difference.
In Tennessee, for example, the comptroller’s office proposed an increase in the tax valuation of solar property from half a percent to 33%, the same valuation as wind turbines. A year later, solar advocates had succeeded in reducing the valuation to 12.5%.
“[The 33% valuation] was such a deal-killer,” said Mary Shaffer Gill, president of TenneSEIA. “Obviously, we’d love to have it at half a percent, but we felt satisfied with the result.”
The work will continue for advocacy groups across the country because threats to solar business surface all the time. More than a dozen states have issues in contention now, and contractors must bring a dose of their reality—that solar is good, and this is why—to the insular halls of legislators.
The most basic way to get involved is to sign up for alerts from regional or national solar advocacy groups, or become a member of one. SEIA hosts a directory of regional chapters on its website, seia.org.
“These groups will let you know when your voice will matter most, and they will give you the tools you need to take action,” said Rosalind Jackson, director of external relations at Vote Solar. “It could be a couple clicks, but it will have an impact.”
But maybe you want to be more involved and come face-to-face with your elected officials. All the experts interviewed agree on this fact: More than anything else, legislators are driven by job creation and economic growth in their districts. But they also want votes. Therefore, communication should come from someone who matters to them—in other words, someone who can vote for them—and the constituent should offer just the facts that matter. Legislators are busy people, and you may only have a few minutes to share your point and secure support.
“Good things don’t happen because of luck,” said Jason Rooks, a professional lobbyist who works with GASEIA. “I spend a lot of time making sure the right person is communicating the right thing to the right legislator.”
Advocating for Tennessee installers, Gill traveled to Washington, D.C., twice last year. She and her party stressed numbers.
“We talked jobs, talked dollars and shared an inventory of the solar assets in the state,” Gill said. “With those numbers, we can show the economic impact of the industry here, up and down the
value chain. Turning it into a business case is extremely important.”
Solar is a big business today. More than $71 billion in solar investment was deployed in the U.S. in 2014, and more than 174,000 Americans are employed in the solar industry, according to SEIA.
Talking to regulators is a bit more nuanced than sharing information with legislators. Whereas a lot of what lobbyists do with legislators is educate, regulators already know the details. Still, their details come from a small group of interests that often have a strong connection to utilities. They are accustomed to a utility-centric electricity model. They need to hear from contractors and others outside their comfort zone.
“Regulators are more well-versed in electricity than the typical legislator,” Jackson said. For regulators, she said, “it’s really making the case for rethinking the whole relationship between the customer and the utility and the value local solar power brings to a grid.”
For contractors interested in lobbying regulators, IREC has developed a guide specifically for regulators on assessing the costs and benefits of distributed solar (available at tinyurl.com/IREC-Solar). Bring this with you. But at the end of the day, Jackson said, local and regional issues come down to one stakeholder versus another.
“What solar really has going for it is public support and a vision that inspires people,” she said. “You want to report a fact-based case, but also remind regulators about what their consumers want.”
Polling consistently puts consumer support for all forms of solar power at over 80%, and support comes from across the political spectrum. The trick is getting policy makers to also see the tangible benefits of the technology.