US electrical utilities are feeling pressure from distributed solar power and are proving that they will go to all ends to protect their monopoly positions. In Florida, the utilities are spending tens of millions of dollars to manipulate the electorate into voting for an amendment that limits solar power’s growth. In the last five years alone, the largest 25 utilities have spent more than $400 million on lobbying federal and state elections. This effort to control the political machine is worth trillions annually.
And now that we know 92% of people breathe unsafe air and more than 6 million a year die of it – that these utilities are slowing the transition to cleaner forms of energy means they are knowingly killing people.
First off, let us be very clear that in the United States the electricity industry has made great strides. Total CO2 emissions by the industry have fallen by 25% since 2008, while the total amount of electricity produced has stayed flat. So much work has been done that we’ve seen transportation pass the electric power sector in terms of total CO2 emissions. As well, we can hope for much more with the Clean Power Plan’s goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from mostly coal-fired electric power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels before 2030 (of course, 24 states are suing to not have to comply).
However – this progression has mostly come as a result of a transition from coal to natural gas – a cost saving measure, not because the utilities have seen the light of green energy. In a now famous report, the electrical utilities described a ‘death spiral’ due to growing distributed solar power generation. The process would go like this:
- Some customers would move to solar power and stop paying the electricity grid.
- This would leave fewer customers to pay for an expensive, static power grid. With fewer customers there would be higher prices.
- More customers would move to solar power now that electricity is more expensive and solar prices (plus storage) are falling.
Of course, Warren Buffet called the spiral bullshit – but he added in a very specific caveat: this spiral is bullshit only for electricity companies that are in states where the markets are regulated, publicly approved monopolies – exactly where Buffet invests. Buffet in an investors letter:
The survival of a local electric company did not depend on its efficiency. In fact, a “sloppy” operation could do just fine financially. That’s because utilities were usually the sole supplier of a needed product and were allowed to price at a level that gave them a prescribed return upon the capital they employed. The joke in the industry was that a utility was the only business that would automatically earn more money by redecorating the boss’s office. And some CEOs ran things accordingly.
So what’s a utility to do if it cannot make money redecorating the boss’ office? First, Exxon will spend 40 years paying off climate deniers to confuse the public even after their own scientists said climate change was real and caused by humans burning fossil fuels. Then, the utilities will spend $400 million over the past five years to payoff politicians. A dollar amount that could have DOUBLED the total amount of solar power in the United States.
In 2015-2016 those utilities chose to continue their targeting of Florida. This long term effort has resulted in solar electricity making up less than one percent of the Sunshine State’s energy mix. With the second-highest electrical consumption in the country, the average Florida household spends 40 percent more than the national average on electricity. That electricity is generated from 84% fossil fuels. And now the power companies have bonded together, with their ‘political ju-jistu’, and collected greater than $21 million to manipulate the population into voting against their best interest on solar power. This Amendment was written specifically to create confusion and distract from a true change via a citizen sponsored amendment. Unfortunately, ‘Floridians for Solar Choice’ – a group aiming to increase what individual’s can do with their rooftop – wasn’t able to compete financially with the Koch brothers and the electricity utilities.
The lie underlying the logic of the flawed Florida amendment is that people who install solar power are somehow imposing a cost on non-solar power users in the network. Many studies have shown this not to be the case (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 – I could go on). Solar power lowers upgrades costs, lowers energy losses, lowers the need for highly inefficient and expensive natural gas peaker plants, produces energy in the highest cost windows – and that’s before we consider the fact that it doesn’t fill your lungs with air pollution. Reality is exactly the opposite of what the utilities want you to think:
The significant drop in the price of solar and wind generation costs, especially for solar PV installations, helped prevent cost inflation in electricity generation over the past five years, according to a newly published report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).
The electric utilities know exactly who it is getting a $5.3 trillion price break every single year. This happens because good ‘ol boy Florida corruption. And the Miami Herald has painted for us a beautiful play by play of how corruption is legislatively structured:
Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, detailed the strategy used by the state’s largest utilities to create and finance Amendment 1 at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville on Oct. 2.
Nuzzo called the amendment, which has received more than $21 million in utility industry financing, “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road,” according to an audio recording of the event supplied to the Herald/Times.
“As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well,” he said.
“To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”
The utilities will use the popularity of solar power and manipulative wording to put in laws that can limit – via state constitutions – future growth. This is how powerful, well-financed, and well-connected national groups work to protect their financial interests, irrelevant of who it harms. And they’re not going to stop.
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