In a surprising move, Wisconsin’s Libertarian Party is endorsing a proposal to allow the state’s electricity customers lease solar panels and other small renewable energy generators. The Clean Energy Choice Initiative is spearheaded by a local clean energy group, RENEW Wisconsin, and while the Libertarians are often find themselves at odds with environmentalists, they say this time is different.
“Most of us don’t trust the environmental movement because they’ve cried wolf forever and ever. There are all kinds of philosophical disagreements, but at the end of the day this was pretty much a no-brainer,” Paul Ehlers, state party chair, told Midwest Energy News.
Most energy customers cannot afford the installed cost of a brand-new renewable energy generator, like solar panels, to supply them with electricity, according to RENEW Wisconsin. These costs become more manageable when the equipment is owned by someone else — a third party can install a the system on the customer’s property and sell the energy to the customer. The Clean Energy Choice Initiative would clarify Wisconsin’s law to enable leasing and other types of third-party ownership for solar panels, wind turbines and other generators.
Having the Libertarian Party’s backing could help renewable energy advocates gain traction with Republicans, who currently control state government. “What we’re proposing doesn’t involve a new mandate or an extension of existing mandates. It’s not in any way related to existing or future subsidies. It’s not an intrusion in the marketplace. It’s actually a liberation of the marketplace. So we felt this issue should fit in their wheelhouse,” Michael Vickerman, program and policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, explained to Midwest Energy News.
Wisconsin’s advocates can look to Georgia for a recent example of political opponents successfully allying in the effort to expand consumer access to clean energy. The Georgia Tea Party teamed up with clean energy advocates and environmental groups in urging the state’s Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power, the state’s sole investor-owned utility, to significantly increase its use of solar power.
The Tea Party’s interest in the debate was quite simple: they believe consumers have the right to choose where their electricity comes from and shouldn’t be forced to remain dependent on a single source, especially in light of the rapidly declining cost of solar. As Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party explained, “The free market has been one of the founding principles of the Tea Party since it began and a monopoly is not a free market.”
Despite a last-minute effort by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity to derail the measure, it passed and the unlikely allies plan to continue working together. In fact, they’ve formed the Green Tea Coalition to further advance solar energy in the state and serve as a model for other atypical alliances across the country.
One such state is Arizona, where Barry Goldwater, Jr. — son of U.S. Senator and conservative icon Barry Goldwater — has launched an effort to protect the state’s net metering policy, a major driver of the solar industry. Net metering allows customers to install solar panels on their property and sell any excess energy back to the grid. Distributed energy sources like rooftop solar are a major threat to utilities’ business model and in many states, they’re fighting back. The Arizona Public Service has proposed reducing its net metering credits, which according to Goldwater, “may very well kill rooftop solar in Arizona, and that would be a tragedy.”
As for Wisconsin, RENEW Wisconsin and the 90 other groups that support the Clean Energy Choice Initiative are optimistic about the impact of the Libertarian endorsement as they work to convince the state legislature to take up the measure this year. “We have some credibility now. We can talk to Republican legislators in a way we couldn’t in the past,” said Vickerman.