How Rooftop Solar Got Its Groove Back

By all accounts, 2013 was a banner year for the solar industry in the halls of government and the court of public opinion. Across the country, big utilities launched attacks on policies like net metering to stifle innovation and maintain the profit margins that clean solar energy threatens to undermine. And in the face of multimillion-dollar lobbyist brigades, the solar industry grew up and learned to fight back.

Led by The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), the top rooftop solar companies won battles to preserve net metering in Idaho, Louisiana, Arizona, and California—this despite every effort by the utilities to rig the game, up to and including dark money campaign tactics rarely seen outside of election season.

TASC used public opinion to turn the tide in state houses and utility commissions, where utility money has lined pockets for more than a century. In Arizona, more than 1,000 voters attended the final hearing on a proposal from APS, an event that local reporters described as the largest political rally in state history. More than 30,000 Arizonans wrote the regulator opposing APS’s proposal—in a state with only 18,000 rooftop solar customers! Meanwhile, in California, the solar industry worked with legislators to pass AB 327, a landmark bill that protects net metering and removes the cap on the Renewable Portfolio Standard.

TASC also engaged utilities in the media with a much tougher tone than the solar industry used in the past. Creative tactics including parody songs and viral YouTube videos brought the debate to a broader audience and presented solar’s case in a way that was easily digestible for even the shortest of attention spans. With TASC setting the new tune, the 40-year-old Solar Energy Industries Association (or SEIA) found a new tone in its advocacy.

DC insiders say a dramatic shift occurred when Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance (CPF), became Vice Chairman of the SEIA Board of Directors in July. According to a CPF spokesperson, Kreamer’s company works with TASC, while not identifying as an official public member. One insider described an early industry meeting during which Kreamer suggested a “free-fire zone” to respond more aggressively to utility attacks.

Kreamer’s strong tone is evident in SEIA’s advocacy, with SEIA leadership making comments like this after bringing him on board:

“We are also very troubled by the public campaign of misinformation, manipulation and distortion engineered by APS… Unfortunately, the utility exploited this debate and then used it as an opportunity to stymie competition, ‘stick it’ to consumers and bolster its bottom line. No one should be surprised. This is what monopolies do.”  —Rhone Resch, President and CEO SEIA, Nov. 2013 

Kreamer is not only a solar CEO, but also a former Special Forces intelligence Officer for the Navy. His aggressive tone behind the scenes and his role in toughening up SEIA’s advocacy contrast with his more amicable public tone toward utilities. He has been known to speak publicly about how rooftop solar is an opportunity for utilities. Any double agent training he may have received as an Intelligence Officer seems to be coming in handy.

Kreamer did stray briefly from his softer public tone toward utilities when he put a stake in the ground for the rooftop solar industry earlier this year during a panel session with Arizona Public Service’s Renewable Energy Program Manager, Greg Bernosky. While reflecting on the Arizona rooftop solar market, Kreamer said, “I’m not going to let Greg off on this because I candidly think it’s been a pretty hostile market… APS went into the Corporation Commission and basically took a series of actions that were hostile to commercial and residential solar in the market.”

The tone that TASC, Kreamer, and then SEIA adopted in 2013 brought a new level of vigor and tenacity to the rooftop solar campaign in response to Big Energy’s dark money tactics. Rooftop solar is living up to the challenges of this David v. Goliath battle, and delivered a four-state winning streak this year.

Peter Allen is an independent political and communications consultant and a proud native of San José. You can follow him on Twitter at @pjallen2.

Peter Allen is a communications consultant and proud native of San Jose. Contrary to popular belief, he is not currently employed by any candidate for San Jose Mayor or City Council. Follow him on Twitter at @pjallen2.

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