In the Midwest, community solar aligns with conservative Republican values
Solar policy support is usually led by Democrats, from federal lawmakers to local office holders. These legislators are largely driven by environmental considerations in their work to create progressive solar policies. But one sector of solar is not only getting more and more attention from conservative Republicans, it’s being led by them, especially in the Midwest.
“Community solar appears to be the conservative option for renewables,” said Jim Murray, Midwest Regional Director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA).
In Wisconsin, GOP leaders in the state house and senate introduced a community solar power bill; and in Michigan, a Republican and a Democratic representative, who had never spoken to each other, joined forces to introduce an enabling bill.
“It’s rare these days to find a problem that is truly two-pronged and a win-win for everyone,” Michigan Republican Representative Michele Hoitenga said in a press release. “Community solar is one of those rare issues and I’m proud to be working across the aisle on this important issue for our residents.”
Community solar equates to conservative values for a number of reasons. First, it is available to a wide range of traditionally Republican voters — including farmers and other rural residents who could benefit from leasing their land for community solar projects.
“As conservatives, we believe in property rights and we believe that the government should not regulate what is and is not allowed on the property we own,” said Tyler Duvelius, director of external affairs for the nonprofit Conservative Energy Network (CEN) . “Solar energy has been a huge economic boon to farmers and landowners who get it on their land.”
However, the same principle of “property rights” of conservatism is used against renewables in other Midwestern states. Ohio recently accepted an account requires all future utility-scale solar and wind farms to be approved by provincial commissioners, in addition to the state power placement council, which will subject developers to even longer approval periods and more uncertainty. While it’s aimed at larger utility-scale projects, it shows that the same argument can be used just as easily against solar power in general.
When it comes to incentive-driven sectors like rooftop solar, conservatives aren’t shy about their disdain. But the larger scale of community solar means it costs less to build and is also more affordable for subscribers. It is seen by Republicans as more of a free market option.
“It’s not intrusive, it’s not a big government mandate and it’s something they can see tangible in their own community,” Duvelius said.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel said he is sponsoring the Wisconsin community solar bill to diversify energy options in his state.
“The problems I have with the conventional energy industry today is the monopoly they have and the regulatory environment they have. I think both are often exaggerated and really dampen the competition, and competition of course makes for more reliability, lower costs and it better meets consumer demands,” said Stroebel.
He said Wisconsin has some of the highest energy rates in the Midwest and that its voters would like more energy choices than the major utilities. He supports community sun as an antidote to that problem, saying it can thrive without government subsidies.
“I want to see these energy sources stand on their own, and the people in the solar community have indicated that we can stand on our own. We don’t need those subsidies. We have a model that can work by selling subscriptions and creating real competition and undercutting the big boys who have been locked up like that for years,” he said.
Stroebel said he initially had Democrats backing his bill, but the utilities and unions convinced many of those lawmakers to reject it because the bill doesn’t include union labor requirements.
“They came to those Democratic lawmakers with the statement, ‘This is not good because there will be non-union people who will run this power generation and they will bring in labor from out of state,’ which is all just bunk beds, frankly, ‘ said Stroebel.
To be account also includes verbiage that prohibits subscribers from collecting community solar credits that exceed their average annual electricity bill, and sets zoning parameters that could be prohibitive for some projects. Democrats can also comment on those provisions.
With Republican majorities in the Wisconsin House and Senate, Stroebel still thinks there’s a good chance the bill will hit the governor’s desk.
Consolidating Republican support for solar in the community isn’t easy. CCSA and CEN have been working behind the scenes in Wisconsin and Michigan to rally the coalition support needed to pass legislation.
“What I found in both states is that there was community solar everywhere. There were several organizations that had community solar on their list of things they would like to achieve and no one has ever come in. who said, ‘Okay, let’s focus on community solar, let’s form a coalition, let’s find good sponsors, let’s use some good language,’ said Murray.
Those groups weren’t your typical leftist conservation and renewable energy organizations. In Michigan, supporters of the bill include the municipal league, conservative energy groups and company councils.
“The coalition of people supporting these bills looks a little different than in the past, which is why I think that’s attracting the attention of Republicans who say, ‘Our voters are asking for this. This is something small businesses want, this is something farmers want, this is something rural voters want,” said Matt Hargarten, CCSA campaign manager.
In addition to coalition building, CCSA and other organizations help legislators write the actual legislation to ensure all parameters are in place for a successful program.
“There are other states that have developed community solar legislation that haven’t consulted with us, and what ends up happening is you get a program that succeeds, but nobody does anything about it because it was confusing,” Hargarten said. “We can come in and advise the stakeholders on how to do that, how to write that legislation in a way that will actually deliver the intended result.”
Whether or not these Republican-lauded community solar bills succeed, they pave the way for a new era where some renewable energy sectors aren’t as politically polarizing as they used to be.
“If you generate this energy in a green and environmentally friendly way, and you are competitive and don’t have to look to the taxpayer to subsidize that energy generation, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. How can you be against that?” said Stroebel.