Debbie Dooley is mad as hell.
Since 2012, the fifty-six-year-old grandmother and former IT consultant has been waging a fierce grassroots battle against her home state utility, Georgia Power, to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels. Now, she’s working with allies in Florida to sponsor a ballot initiative that would allow businesses and homeowners there to sell any energy they generate back to the grid.
But she has run into stiff resistance from the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. The group has sent out e-mails to its supporters against the idea and organized a Tallahassee press conference at which the organization’s state director Chris Hudson complained that “requiring traditional utility companies to give their grid space to solar energy will impose a massive cost” on Florida ratepayers. Claims like that have Dooley riled up.
“I am battling the Koch brothers and all of their funded groups because they are giving me problems,” Dooley says in a Southern accent as thick as a humid day. “We have been brainwashed for years by the fossil fuel interests and politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry to believe that green energy is bad. And it’s not.”
This is the kind of impassioned talk you might expect from, say, a Greenpeace campaigner. But Dooley is a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative. In 2009, she was one of the original organizers of the nationwide tea party protests. She’s a co-founder of the Atlanta tea party, as well as a board member of the national group Tea Party Patriots. And she’s a staunch believer in the importance of creating a decentralized and renewable energy system. Under the banner of her “Green Tea Coalition,” she’s brought together the Sierra Club and the Christian Coalition to fight for rooftop solar energy, something that she says is right in line with her conservative beliefs. “I believe in the marketplace and I believe in the free market, and we need to allow innovation to take place,” she says.
That a grassroots conservative activist would become one of the most effective advocates of renewable energy in her region is just one example of the swirling, surprising politics of clean energy today. Five years after federal climate change legislation died an ignominious death in the U.S. Senate, a quiet revolution in electricity generation is transforming the nation’s energy industry. The 1970s-era dream of a renewable and distributed energy system is approaching reality, thanks to a mix of local leadership and advances in technology that have sent clean energy prices plummeting. While Beltway politicians continue to use climate and energy as a political football (or a partisan cudgel), state leaders and even some utilities are embracing the economic and environmental benefits of improved energy efficiency and green energy.
“I think it’s a really exciting time,” says Rebecca Stansfield, a Chicago-based policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Two things are happening: There is a clear public demand for moving away from dirty energy resources toward clean energy resources. And a lot of it is being driven by the economic potential, the way in which investing in efficiency lowers people’s utility bills. There are a couple of clear public drivers, and it’s not all about the environment.”
Indeed. Even in places where the reality of human-driven climate change remains a topic of debate, state legislators have put in place laws to reduce overall energy demand and encourage renewable technologies. Statistics from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions illustrate the broad, nationwide sweep of such policies. Twenty-three states have instituted some form of utility “decoupling”—an energy conservation measure that allows utility companies to earn a profit even if their customers use less electricity and gas. Twenty-seven states have established “renewable energy standards” that require a certain percentage of their electricity to be derived from renewable sources by a given year. In coal-rich Montana, for example, 15 percent of energy should be coming from renewables by the end of this year. There are “net metering” policies in place in nineteen states, which allow homeowners and businesses to sell any energy they generate (usually from rooftop solar photovoltaic panels) back to the grid. If Debbie Dooley has her way, Florida will become the twentieth.
In more politically progressive states, these policies and others have been driven by concerns about global warming and frustration—especially during the Bush Administration and President Obama’s first term—that the federal government wasn’t addressing the climate change threat. California is the best-known example. Back in 2006, the state legislature passed, and Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed, the Global Warming Solutions Act, which set a firm cap on greenhouse gas emissions. The law’s cap-and-trade system went into effect in 2012, and state lawmakers say the program is proof that a state can stanch its emissions and still experience economic growth.
“In the midst of implementing our cap-and-trade system, through the course of all this, we have grown from the eighth-largest economy in the world to the seventh-largest,” says California State Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco who sits on the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. Leno is now co-sponsoring legislation that would require a 50 percent reduction in the state’s petroleum use by 2030 and 50 percent renewable energy generation by that same year. “We have failed leadership in the U.S. Congress, and so it’s left to the states to take action.”
Nine New England and mid-Atlantic states are participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, another emissions reduction plan based on a cap-and-trade model. Nationwide, nineteen states have created climate action plans for lowering their emissions. In March, Oregon followed California to become the second state to establish a low-carbon fuel standard. Washington State is also considering new rules for vehicle fuels, and Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has distinguished himself with his forceful rhetoric on global warming. In a January state of the state speech, he called for a cap on emissions and an ambitious transportation plan that would make new investments in mass transit.
Such state-level efforts are (finally) receiving a boost from the federal government. Last June, the Environmental Protection Agency, citing its authority under the Clean Air Act, issued draft rules for states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants and factories. The rules, which will be finalized and go into effect this year, will require states to reduce their CO2 emissions 30 percent by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline). Given that power generation accounts for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the rule is likely to be one of the signature environmental accomplishments of Obama’s presidency.
All of these encouraging trends, however, remain vulnerable to reactionary politics. The corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has successfully convinced lawmakers in West Virginia to roll back its renewable energy standard and for Ohio to temporarily suspend its standard, too. ALEC is also mounting challenges to net-metering laws. In an early March op-ed in his hometown Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, called on states to refuse to participate in Clean Power Plan rulemaking. “Think twice before submitting a state plan,” McConnell wrote. A few weeks later, McConnell doubled down on opposition to the new federal rules and wrote a letter to the National Governors Association in which he called on all fifty governors to “carefully review the consequences before signing up for this deeply misguided plan.”
Many energy industry watchers dismissed McConnell’s call for state-level civil disobedience as little more than political theater. The fact is that the EPA rules include eminently reasonable targets (many environmentalists complain they aren’t nearly ambitious enough to meet the scale of the problem), and they give the states a great deal of flexibility in compliance. The state-level administrators who are charged with keeping the lights on are already busy drafting their plans. Even energy officials in McConnell’s own Kentucky said it would be unwise not to comply with the EPA process.
“I don’t think it was taken seriously by that many people in state government,” NRDC’s Stansfield says. “Most thinking people I talk with understand that it’s better to have a plan that comes from the people who know the state, so better to design it for yourself.”
More to the point, McConnell’s politics of coal-state resentment are becoming obsolete because of the steady advances in renewable energy technologies. Though renewables still account for a small percentage of total U.S. electricity generation, the solar and wind industries are booming. In 2014, solar net generation grew 103 percent, while wind grew 8 percent. Since 2008, wind and solar energy capacity in the United States has tripled. In some places, wind power costs about half as much as natural gas or coal per megawatt hour.
The boom in wind and solar electricity generation is occurring in states not necessarily known for their enlightened environmental policies. According to the Department of Energy, the nation’s top wind power state is Texas. Iowa and South Dakota both generate more than a quarter of their electricity from wind turbines. Arizona and North Carolina (where state lawmakers have sought to suppress reports about global warming) are among the top five states in terms of installed solar capacity.
Though it may seem odd, the petrostate of Alaska is among the most pioneering states when it comes to renewable, decentralized energy. While the state’s general fund benefits whenever petroleum prices go up, high oil costs also hurt the state’s far-flung communities, many of which depend on diesel fuel to generate electricity. So in 2008, the state set a target of reaching 50 percent renewable generation by 2025 and reducing electricity use by 15 percent. Since then, the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund has distributed close to $250 million to community energy projects statewide. One of the fund’s signature successes is Kodiak Island, which now gets 98 percent of its energy from renewables.
Such programs fit neatly with Alaska’s spirit of local self-sufficiency, says Sara Fisher-Goad, executive director of the Energy Fund. “We have a robust history of renewables. I think it’s a real recognition from state leaders and from the legislature that the development of this program uses local resources,” she says.
After all of the legal and policy minutiae, and the manufactured confusion around climate science, and the partisan rancor over issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, the case for building a clean energy economy is increasingly coming down to the kind of old-fashioned common sense that can cross ideological lines. At least, that’s the way that Green Tea Coalition co-founder Debbie Dooley sees it. Her organization has already gathered 100,000 signatures to get her solar initiative on the 2016 ballot, and she’s convinced she’ll win the argument on Election Day next year.
“A citizen cannot go out and construct a new power plant, but they can put a solar panel on their rooftop. People who are conservatives should support that,” Dooley says while driving home from a meeting in her Prius. “When my grandson was born, I really started thinking about what kind of future he’s going to have. I want him to have energy freedom and energy choice. Hopefully, by the time he’s an adult and he’s on his own, he should be able to totally generate his own power from his home, and unplug from the grid.”
Jason Mark is the editor of Earth Island Journal. His new book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, will be published in September by Island Press.
Artwork by Gordon Studer