Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Conservative shows how tea party plus solar gives you green tea

Debbie Dooley was one of the 22 founders of the tea party in 2009, helping organize the conservatives who marched on Washington that year and being featured as a speaker.

Twice a delegate to the Republican National Convention, she became disenchanted when Republicans under George Bush expanded prescription drugs without paying for it, supported the No Child Left Behind education law and the big TARP bailout for the banking and real estate industries.

She remains a board member of the Tea Party Patriots and is the founder of Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

She came to Boise this week to testify against Idaho Power’s proposal to restrict solar energy development: The utility wants to reduce — from 20 years to two — the length of contracts it has to sign with independent solar power developers. Advocating solar power and challenging electric utilities is a part of her national campaign to give electric power customers more liberty.

“You can’t call yourself a genuine free-market conservative and champion monopolies that are created by the government,” said Dooley. “True free-market conservatives champion choice and competition.”

Dooley’s Idaho visit comes a month after she led a campaign in Georgia to change the law to let people and businesses contract with companies to put solar panels on their roofs, then sell back the power to the residents. Georgia Power strenuously fought her efforts, but both houses of the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature unanimously supported the plan. Now Georgia Power is in the rooftop solar business, competing on the open market.

Dooley is now championing a voter initiative in Florida to allow homeowners and businesses with solar panels to sell the power to their neighbors.

“Solar allows Floridians the right to engage in commerce with power generated on their private property,” Dooley told me, as her “Sweet Home Alabama” cell phone ring chimed.

The preacher’s daughter from Louisiana has created a green tea party out of nowhere, taking on the power industry and becoming one of the most effective voices for renewable energy. She started after Georgia Power made customers pick up the cost in advance for two nuclear power plants, then forced its customers to pay the costs of overruns.

What made her mad, she said, was that the utility was guaranteed a profit despite the overruns.

“They privatize the profits and socialize the costs,” Dooley said.

Her remarkable success flies in the face of many conservative groups that support nuclear, coal and natural gas but see solar and other renewable energy sources as backed by liberals and propped up by generous subsidies. Her biggest critic is Americans for Prosperity, the group started by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Dooley’s response: Fossil fuels and nuclear power already are heavily subsidized. She supports getting rid of all energy subsidies. She supports deregulating the electricity market, which would lead utilities to sell off their power plants and focus on providing the electrical grid and connections to people’s homes.

In Georgia and Florida, Dooley partnered with the Sierra Club on her solar initiatives. She’s in Idaho at the invitation of Ketchum’s Aimee Christensen, an internationally known energy consultant.

Dooley’s willingness to work with people who don’t agree with her conservative ideology has brought attacks from groups who oppose her solar mission. She doesn’t talk about climate change but many of her allies do. She says she’s willing to work with anyone who supports giving people the freedom to follow their own path on energy and that is used against her by fossil industry-backed groups in conservative circles.

She said conservatives, like the Koch-backed group, don’t like it when conservatives are the ones calling them out on their intellectual inconsistencies.

“You don’t worry if they attack you,” she said. “You worry when they don’t attack. Because if they don’t attack you, they don’t respect you. You’re not getting under their skin.”

Idaho Power’s efforts to increase costs for solar customers in 2013 ran into strong public opinion in favor of individual rights. But the utility has successfully taken on renewable energy developers since, by telling customers that if the company is forced to buy power it doesn’t need, customers will be the ones who have to pay.

Dooley likes to say of investor-owned utilities that shareholders get the gold mine and customers get the shaft. If she and her allies can prove that, Idaho Power, Avista and PacifiCorp might face their own green-tea revolt.