Utilities try to exploit local media to push bogus claims about rooftop solar

Michigan and Iowa recently saw fights over net metering play out in newspapers and other local outlets

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Electric utilities and their fossil fuel-backed allies have been trying to exploit local and state media outlets as they fight net-metering policies that support rooftop solar power -- a trend we saw play out recently in Michigan and Iowa. In some cases their efforts have made use of front groups that purport to represent the interests of people of color or low-income communities. The utilities failed to decisively win their immediate battles in these two states -- in part because local news outlets also aired factually accurate coverage of the issue -- but we can expect to see utilities continue to try to manipulate local media as they push on with their war against rooftop solar.

Fossil fuel interests have gone on the offensive against net metering for rooftop solar

Net metering -- a policy that requires utilities to pay people with solar panels the retail rate for electricity they send to the grid -- has been a major driver of the growth of rooftop solar in the U.S. As of November 2017, 38 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico had some type of mandatory net-metering policy. And in 2018, the solar industry employed more than 240,000 people and generated $17 billion of investment in the U.S. economy, while the price of solar panels continued to drop.

The rapid expansion of rooftop solar has alarmed utilities; the more power that customers generate themselves, the less they pay on their electric bills. So utilities and fossil fuel-backed groups have been waging war on net-metering policies at the state level. In its 2017 report “Blocking the Sun,” the nonprofit group Environment America detailed this coordinated attack by groups including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Consumer Energy Alliance. That same year, The New York Times reported, “Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies." And as InsideClimate News reported this month, “States are moving away from 'net metering' policies … in part because of an aggressive push by utilities to reduce what many of them see as a form of competition that could harm their bottom line." Utilities have been successful in lobbying to roll back net metering in states including Indiana and, most recently, Kentucky.

One of net-metering opponents’ favorite arguments is that the policy leads to “cost-shifting”; they claim that because solar panel owners pay less to the utility, they are paying less for upkeep of the electric grid and shifting those costs onto other customers. Numerous studies, however, have contradicted this claim. At least 16 state-level analyses have concluded that solar panel owners offer more value to the grid and society than they get back through net metering. Net metering “frequently benefits all ratepayers when all costs and benefits are accounted for,” as a 2016 Brookings Institution report explained. A 2017 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab concluded that cost-shifting would occur only when there are higher rates of solar penetration than are seen in most states, and even then, any effects on retail electricity prices would be “quite small compared to many other issues.”

Utilities and other fossil fuel backers also often argue that net metering hurts lower-income ratepayers and communities of color the most -- another false claim. The NAACP endorses net metering, explaining that it and other clean-energy policies “will protect the well-being of communities as well as help to prevent climate change.” Experts at the Environmental Defense Fund found that clean energy policies including net metering can “create savings and minimize costs, drive local living-wage jobs, and improve environmental outcomes for low-income communities.” As Brentin Mock wrote in Grist, “When structured correctly, net metering can spread economic benefits across communities, including to those who can’t produce their own solar power.”

Utilities and their allies regularly try to harness local media outlets to push out these and other anti-solar messages. We saw this in Florida in 2016, when utility surrogates published more than a dozen op-eds in newspapers (without disclosing their utility ties) that argued for a deceptive ballot amendment that would have undercut the rooftop-solar industry. (The amendment lost at the polls.) Earlier this year, utilities made similar pushes via local media outlets in Michigan and Iowa.

Utility-backed groups promoted the anti-net-metering message in Michigan news outlets

In 2016, the Michigan legislature passed bills requiring the state's Public Service Commission (PSC) to begin the process of phasing out net metering and figuring out what would replace it. In July 2018, major Michigan utility DTE Energy brought a case before the PSC that proposed to move far away from the net-metering model by both reducing the amount of compensation for electricity that solar panel owners send to the grid and adding a fee for their use of the grid. DTE invoked the cost-shifting argument, claiming that net-metering customers were being subsidized by those who don’t own solar panels. In early May, the PSC rejected DTE’s proposed “system access charge” for solar customers, while allowing the utility to lower the credit it pays solar panel owners for their excess electricity, but not by as much as the utility wanted. (The PSC also allowed the utility to raise electric rates overall.)

In the period before the case was decided by the PSC, DTE’s allies pushed the utility’s message in local news outlets. At least three opinion pieces promoting DTE’s preferred policy changes appeared in media outlets within a span of eight days in February, all echoing DTE’s talking point that that rooftop solar owners are being unfairly subsidized -- and failing to mention two of the authors’ ties to utility-linked groups.

Michigan Democratic Black Caucus member W.L. Starghill Jr. argued in Bridge Magazine, a Michigan nonpartisan news outlet, that “solar lobbyists” are “aiming to make money on the backs of low-income Michiganders.” Starghill is a member of Michigan Energy Promise, a new dark-money group that has close ties to DTE, according to reporting by the Energy News Network and research by the Energy and Policy Institute.

Monica Martinez, a former Michigan PSC commissioner, wrote in the Lansing State Journal that she had supported net metering a decade ago, but came to believe “reforms” are needed because “those with rooftop solar were not contributing to important grid maintenance and upgrade costs that are included in everyone’s monthly energy bill. In other words, non-solar homes were subsidizing the energy grid usage of rooftop solar homes.” Martinez co-founded the group Hispanics in Energy, which lists utilities and oil companies among its “partners.” Her group has also received thousands of dollars from the Edison Electric Institute, the main trade association for investor-owned utilities, which has attacked net metering at the state level throughout the past decade.

Former Michigan PSC Chairman John Quackenbush echoed these points in a piece in The Detroit News, criticizing net-metering policies that “disproportionately subsidize customers who are able to invest significant money up front while reaping financial benefits in the future.”

But DTE and its allies failed to dominate the media with their message. The three outlets that ran these op-eds supporting DTE's position went on the next month to publish pieces that criticized DTE's stance -- the Lansing State Journal featured an op-ed by a chair of the Michigan State Conference NAACP, The Detroit News published a letter to the editor from the leader of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, and Bridge Magazine ran a piece by the head of Soulardarity, a nonprofit supporting local-level clean energy.

Dark money group in Iowa promoted utility-backed anti-net-metering bill via local media and Facebook ads

This spring in Iowa, the legislature debated the misleadingly acronymed SOLAR Act, which would have imposed new fees on those who generate electricity from solar power, thereby dissuading prospective new buyers of solar panels and severely curtailing the industry in the state. Opponents called it a “sunshine tax.” Major Iowa utility MidAmerican Energy was “heavily involved” in drafting the House and Senate versions of the bills, according to the Energy News Network. Rep. Gary Carlson (R), who introduced the House bill, received $5,000 from MidAmerican for his 2018 campaign. The legislation passed in the Senate but never made it to the House floor, so it died at the end of Iowa’s legislative session in late April. 

While the legislature was in session, MidAmerican and its allies pushed their anti-rooftop-solar messaging out through newspapers and other media outlets in the state. MidAmerican’s CEO published an op-ed praising the SOLAR Act in The Des Moines Register, the state's biggest newspaper.

Other media activity supporting the SOLAR Act was less obviously connected to MidAmerican. Much of it stemmed from a dark-money group called the REAL Coalition that surfaced just a few weeks before the bill was introduced, as the Energy News Network reported. The REAL Coalition is a 501(c)(4) organization that does not need to disclose its funders, but many suspect MidAmerican to be a major financial backer of the group.

The REAL Coalition touted five letters to the editor that praised the SOLAR Act in various newspapers in Iowa, all published over a three-week period in March. The letters featured talking points that were laid out in MidAmerican’s first press release supporting the SOLAR Act -- namely, that cost-shifting is a real problem that needs to be eliminated in the interests of fairness.

The REAL Coalition also ran ads on Facebook, conducted a telemarketing campaign, and aired a series of television advertisements that accused solar panel owners of not paying their fair share to maintain the grid. REAL Coalition ads were purchased via Del Cielo Media, a Virginia-based media buying agency that has done work for numerous Republican campaigns. Del Cielo and its parent company, Smart Media Group, worked for the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008, a pro-Rick Perry super PAC in 2012, and a pro-Donald Trump super PAC in 2016, among others.

But solar advocates also got their arguments out in local press. Solar business owners published op-eds in The Des Moines Register and The Sioux City Journal, while a solar panel owner published one in The Des Moines Register. Two state lawmakers wrote op-eds voicing opposition to the bill that were published in the Register as well.

Perhaps more influentially, some journalists in Iowa were skeptical about the “sunshine tax” and the REAL Coalition. Reporter Josh Scheinblum of ABC affiliate KCRG in Cedar Rapids fact-checked one of the coalition's ads in an on-air segment, which included an interview with a solar company owner who disputed cost-shifting arguments. Scheinblum said he wasn't able to find out who was behind the REAL Coalition, raising “questions on whether it's even legal.” And newspaper editorials opposing the bill ran in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Local media outlets have become a battleground for fights over solar policies

As shown in these examples, utilities and fossil fuel proponents regularly make use of local media outlets to promote policies that will undercut rooftop solar power. Solar advocates also often get their messages out through local media. The result can be a barrage of competing op-eds and letters to the editor.

Reporters and newspaper editorial boards can help their readers make sense of competing arguments by clearly disclosing op-ed authors’ affiliations and financial connections, and by weighing in themselves with fact checks and explanations that make clear who will win and who will lose if proposed policy changes are enacted.

Montana is another notable state where a battle over rooftop solar is playing out in local newspapers. Utility NorthWestern Energy is seeking to add a monthly charge of about $50 on new net-metering customers, part of a broader rate increase request. Solar advocates have been placing op-eds and letters to the editor in Montana newspapers, calling out NorthWestern for its cynical attempt to undermine the spread of solar power. One NorthWestern employee wrote a letter to the editor, published in two papers, that backed the utility’s stance, but she’s been an outlier. So far, opponents of NorthWestern’s proposal have far outnumbered its supporters in local media messaging. The Montana Public Service Commission is expected to make a decision on this matter in the summer or early fall, so in the run-up to that, these op-eds and letters to the editor could help sway the opinions of commissioners.

With Congress gridlocked, many key decisions on clean energy policies, including net metering, are being made at the state level. Local media outlets play a critical role in debates over these decisions, and they're at their best when they combat misinformation, lay out the facts, and give a platform to honest citizen discussion.