April 27, 2014

The Koch Attack on Solar Energy

The Editorial Board of the New York Times today published a rather misleading piece about moves to tax solar panels, which already commonly enjoy an exemption from property taxation. Property taxes are egregiously regressive and tend to punish homeowners for positive changes to their property, but favoring only the improvements made by one industry suggests cynical manipulation, not an interest in general reform. And indeed, that is not what the editorial is interested in.
For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight incentives for renewable energy, which have been adopted by most states. They particularly dislike state laws that allow homeowners with solar panels to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities. So they’ve been pushing legislatures to impose a surtax on this increasingly popular practice, hoping to make installing solar panels on houses less attractive.
Whatever the intention driving the Kochs might be, there are a number of aspects to these battles that are ignored in this editorial. Like the targeted tax exemptions to favor one industry group, “incentives for renewable energy” are shamelessly biased. If the goal were truly to reduce carbon emissions or pollution, then that would be the stated requirement. Instead, these laws specify only the theoretical means, usually limited to wind and solar, not allowing hydro, and often specifying in-state generation. Furthermore, they make no provisions for monitoring the results on emissions. In effect, they simply tell utilities which suppliers they can and can not buy from without regard to actual effect. Indeed, one of the changes being fought by the wind industry in Ohio is to simply remove those purchasing directives from the renewables and efficiency standards, i.e., to let the utilities, not industry lobbyists, determine how best to achieve the goals.

As for net-metering, it is far from the equal exchange implied in the editorial. While homeowners get to install solar panels on the cheap by using the grid as a battery, net-metering laws generally require utilities to pay a hefty premium for taking the overflow. So not only are solar panel owners relying on a grid they no longer pay for, utilities have to pay them handsomely for dumping their excess production. Hence the logic of a tax on solar panels: to help pay for the grid that they continue to use.

Demonizing the Koch brothers, “big polluters”, and “big carbon” in these discussions is no more acceptable than the demonizing of all things Obama that the editorial decries about “Koch Carbon” ads. Nor is automatically defending all things Obama. In fact, Ken Lay of Enron, with the help of George W. Bush, essentially created the modern wind industry as a heavily subsidized darling of environmentalists. (Bush was keynote speaker at the 2010 American Wind Energy Association conference.)
The coal producers’ motivation is clear: They see solar and wind energy as a long-term threat to their businesses. ... Renewables are good for economic as well as environmental reasons, as most states know. (More than 143,000 now work in the solar industry.)
Coal isn’t even a part of Koch Industries activities. Piping natural gas, however, is, and in terms of actual electricity production, natural gas is the fastest growing source, driven in large part by the need for generators that can react quickly enough to the highly fluctuating production of wind. (Ironically, if it did not have to contend with wind, natural gas generators could be built to be almost twice as efficient.)

Nor is coal threatened by solar and wind. It is the increase of natural gas that has reduced coal’s share of electricity generation. Because it takes several hours for a large coal plant to start up, it can not shut down as solar and especially wind production rises, because that production will fall again, usually unpredictably. That means coal must still be burned even while not producing electricity. Furthermore, world demand for (cheap) electricity is only increasing, and U.S. coal is increasingly exported to those markets.

The only threat to coal profits would be enforcement of environment and labor laws, but fighting for that would recognize that even so-called progressives are indeed users of coal, which is hard to nuance in a simple-minded fund-raising appeal or media event.

As for jobs, the solar and wind lobbies count every ancillarily involved contract as a job. The lawyer who draws up leases, the consultant who adapts the boilerplate environmental review, the concrete company that pours foundations, the lunch truck that hits a construction site on its rounds — these are all counted as “jobs in solar and wind”, even though they all existed before and will continue to exist after.

(According to Wikipedia, Koch Industries employs 50,000 people in the U.S. and 20,000 in other countries. Is that a justification per se for anything?)
That line might appeal to Tea Partiers, but it’s deliberately misleading. This campaign is really about the profits of Koch Carbon and the utilities, which to its organizers is much more important than clean air and the consequences of climate change.
Again, this editorial might appeal to Obama apologists and corporate-allied environmentalists, but it does so by being deliberately misleading.

wind power, wind energy, wind turbines, wind farms, environment, environmentalism, human rights, ecoanarchism