Speaking Truth to Power (Companies)

The utility industry has launched a sophisticated disinformation campaign to thwart the development of solar energy and protect investors in coal and natural gas.

solar panels
The utility industry has launched a disinformation campaign to thwart the development of solar energy. (Michael Mazengarb/Flickr)

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As the cost of solar panels continues to plummet—it’s fallen an estimated 75 percent in the past six years—it seems logical that the laws of economics would compel utilities to switch to clean, cheap solar alternatives. Free market pressures combined with government incentives to clean up power plants should make rooftop solar, community solar and utility company investments in solar no-brainers across the U.S.

So why is the solar transition happening so slowly? To find the answer, we have to throw open the curtains and take a close look at the power behind the power grid.

Meet the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for investor-owned utilities. In 2013, it produced a report called “Disruptive Challenges,” identifying the biggest one as solar energy development.

In the report, the organization lamented the “lower profitability potential” of a future where customers could install solar panels on their roofs or buy shares of a community solar garden to obtain power. Folks could even access power from a utility that produces solar at a lower cost and, shockingly, faces the prospect of charging customers less as the costs continue to drop over time. The horror!

The report was a frantic call to action, comparing the utility industry to telephone companies, which went from rich monopolies to pathetic has-beens as telecommunications technologies swallowed their markets. This is clearly a crisis for investors. So, with help from the Koch brothers, whose fortunes are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry, the utilities hired crisis communicator Michael Maslansky to create confusion and anxiety about solar.

Maslansky is the impresario of obfuscation.

He’s the guy who dubbed George W. Bush’s invitation to the timber industry to harvest old-growth trees in national forests the “Healthy Forests Initiative” and named Bush’s effort to undermine air pollution regulations the “Clear Skies Act.” When he went to work for the utilities, he applied his Orwellian skills to the task at hand.

He recommended that utility companies stop calling their solar generation facilities “utility-scale solar,” instead calling them “community solar” because it sounds much friendlier. But it’s also deceptive—or at least confusing—to the public, which has come to know solar gardens developed by companies or organizations outside of the utility industry as “community solar.” The Solar Energy Industry Association identifies 91 such community solar projects nationwide.

Many of these community solar projects are designed to enable low- and moderate-income families to access solar power even though they don’t have the means to invest in their own rooftop panels. Community solar panels are often installed on the roofs of churches or other nonprofit facilities to keep costs low.

Even more cynical is the utility-backed “Smart Solar” campaign in Florida. “Smart Solar” is the name of a ballot measure that would make power more expensive for customers who install solar panels on their roofs—even though these customers would buy little or no power from the utilities. Recently, judges narrowly ruled against an Earthjustice challenge to the measure, paving the way for the measure’s appearance on the November ballot.

The Sunshine State lags in the development of solar power largely because state regulations hamstring the industry. Florida utility companies have spent $12 million making campaign contributions to lawmakers since 2010 to ensure the lawmakers block any moves away from coal and gas generation. The money for those political contributions comes directly from ratepayers—the same folks who stand to gain the most from the transition to cheap, clean solar energy.

Instead of fighting progress and investing millions in disinformation campaigns that don’t serve the public, the industry and its customers should take a cue from Maryland.

Last year, the Maryland legislature approved a bill to create a three-year pilot project that will allow all 6 million residents of the state access to community solar. As part of the pilot, researchers will determine the impacts of the policy on utilities and ratepayers.

The wave of progress in solar energy is building. Utility efforts to hold it back through political payoffs and disinformation campaigns are not just cynical, they’re desperate and doomed to fail. The Maryland project is poised to deliver the facts about solar, and it’s about time. Utility customers deserve the truth—even if coal and gas industry barons can’t handle it.

From 2008-2022, Jessica Ennis was part of the Policy & Legislation team in Washington, D.C., advocating for the protection of people, public lands, and the environment from the potentially devastating impacts of oil and gas development.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.