E&E News: Corporate and environmental front groups emerge influential in Southeast solar battles

By Kristi Schwarz and Edward Klump

As the battles heat up to shape rooftop solar policies in the Southeast, players have shifted away from solar installers versus regulated electric companies.

Now, well-organized advocacy groups armed with gobs of money have descended on state capitals in hopes of influencing state lawmakers and utility regulators.

The groups typically are an alphabet soup of acronyms with pro-business or pro-consumer names. Most, but not all, are known as "social welfare" groups, politically charged nonprofits that try to influence policies and elections.

Their current target is the row of states from Louisiana to Florida. The stakes are high as each state is poised to hash out rules that either will make rooftop solar more accessible for consumers or lock out customer-generated electricity for years.

"These front groups provide another voice calling for rollbacks of clean energy policies, and their misinformation can serve as the intellectual ammo for anti-clean energy efforts," said Gabe Elsner, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-clean energy think tank and watchdog group. "We're going to see more of it [as] pro-renewables and climate change policies are considered in the near future."

Two major utilities -- New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. and Atlanta-based Southern Co. -- dominate that region. Utility executives and others are watching closely; what happens in one state easily could influence its neighbors.

"To the extent that certain states get it right and certain states get it wrong, I want to make sure we understand what all of the issues are," said Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning after the company's recent annual shareholders meeting.

"I do believe every state is different," he said. "I want to have a comprehensive view on what's out there but also the context of the decisions that other states make and make sure I'm well informed when I recommend policy for our own states."

Then the advocacy groups step in. Some say this is because a consumer group's argument will be better received by the public than one coming from a large electricity company.

"The message wouldn't resonate as loudly as a supposed free-market or pro-ratepayer group who says, 'This is why solar is bad for ratepayers,'" Elsner said.

The Southeast can tout solar success stories after spending years fighting it off. Georgia has nearly 1 gigawatt of solar set to go on the grid by the end of next year; North Carolina has a renewable energy requirement; and South Carolina and soon Georgia will let customers finance rooftop solar panels from a private company, making them more affordable.

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