A curious thing happened in Georgia this month.
As the state's public service commission was considering a proposal for 525 megawatts of solar PV -- a program fiercely opposed by Georgia Power -- an unlikely alliance formed to support more solar. The Tea Party Patriots and environmental activist groups joined together to encourage passage of the program, which was eventually upheld by regulators.
Alliances like these happen all the time, if the issue suits both parties. But even more interesting was the split between conservative groups on the issue. While the Tea Party Patriots were busy pushing for more solar in Georgia, the conservative political group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) -- another Tea Party-aligned group backed by the oft-maligned Koch Brothers -- was busy fighting it.
As it has in other states, AFP waged a small war on the solar program, claiming that it would drive up electric rates and destroy Georgia's economy. But it was a Tea Party Patriots leader who presented the most effective pushback.
"AFP Georgia is putting out absolutely false information. They're taking data from two years ago, three years ago and saying solar is too expensive," said Debbie Dooley, a national coordinator with the organization.
With strong financial backing from the Koch Brothers, AFP has become a powerful force in local and national politics. The group has convinced more than 400 House members, Senators and state lawmakers to sign its "no climate tax" pledge -- a campaign credited with helping stall any action on pricing carbon in Congress. The group has also waged a campaign to repeal state renewable energy targets and any other laws or tax policies supporting clean energy.
In order to win its war, AFP has unleashed an endless barrage of claims -- either half true or completely false -- to build its case. Here are some gems from its most aggressive campaigns over the years.
Georgia, 2013: States with renewable energy targets have electric rates 40 percent higher than states without.
This is the most recent claim made by AFP in its fight against Georgia's solar program. (It's actually been made by a number of conservative groups over the last two years.) Although it's misleading, this is probably the closest to the truth the organization has gotten.
Indeed, states with renewable energy targets have, on average, electric rates that are 39 percent higher than states without targets. But that figure is completely meaningless.
Most of the states with renewable energy targets had high rates before they ever established new mandates in the first place. That's because far more factors than energy go into the price of power -- customer density, monthly usage, the age of infrastructure, and whether a market is regulated or deregulated are just a few.
The more accurate way to gauge the impact is to look at how much electric rates have changed in states with targets compared to states without. And so far, there is no proof that renewable energy targets systematically drive up rates. Since being rolled out across the country, some states see increases in rates, other states see decreases in rates -- with many other factors also playing a role in those changes.
New Jersey, 2011: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) will drive up rates 90 percent.
When ten Northeastern states were reviewing their participation in RGGI, a modest regional cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 10 percent in the power sector, AFP swooped in. The organization focused on New Jersey, where Republican Governor Chris Christie was skeptical of the program. AFP ended up spending $300,000 on television and radio ads in the state claiming that the freedom-killing program would raise rates by 90 percent.
"When fully implemented, rates can rise as much as 90 percent or more as speculators drive permit costs through the roof," claimed the ads. "That bill goes not just to you, but to your employer, the places you shop and your local government. The result: higher taxes, lost jobs and less freedom."
The reality? Three years after implementation in 2009, RGGI administrators reported a 23 percent drop in carbon emissions -- with virtually no influence on electricity prices. An outside consulting group also estimated that the program would save ratepayers within all participating states $1.1 billion in electricity costs over the life of the program.
The drop in utility-sector carbon emissions was not entirely due to RGGI. The decline was also caused by fuel switching from coal due to low natural gas prices, along with the hangover from the economic downturn. However, a utility executive from National Grid explained that emissions were declining because of “effects of RGGI on top of that.”
The overall effectiveness of RGGI is up for debate. But no one has closed their business, lost their job, seen electric rates skyrocket or gotten their freedom trampled because of the program.
Presidential election, 2012: The stimulus helped SunPower shift solar manufacturing jobs to Mexico.
This was one of many "over-the-top, pants-on-fire" claims busted by fact-checkers during last year's presidential election when AFP deployed millions of dollars to attack the stimulus package. Because clean energy was such a major part of the stimulus, the industry became the centerpiece of those attacks.
In numerous national ad campaigns, AFP claimed that the Obama administration has shipped clean energy jobs overseas. Early on in the stimulus, there were a lot of legitimate concerns that too many products were being made in China and elsewhere. But stimulus dollars were not going to foreign countries to manufacture technologies -- they were being used to support deployment of projects in the U.S.
In one ad, AFP claimed that SunPower was using stimulus money to build a manufacturing plant in Mexico. The claim was based off a story manufactured by a conservative blogger and pushed by Fox News reporting that SunPower had received $1.2 billion to build a manufacturing plant in Mexico.
This was not even remotely true. The $1.2 billion loan guarantee was used to build the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch Project, a project that was subsequently sold to NRG. At the same time, SunPower said it would be constructing a new solar manufacturing plant in Mexico, where some of the panels for the project would come from. Julie Blunden, formerly of SunPower, said the 250-megawatt project would be using equipment from four different states, silicon from Michigan and panels from California, Mexico and Asia.
AFP's assertion about SunPower -- along with its other accusations that the federal government sent tax credits to overseas companies -- were roundly rejected by fact-checkers.
These are just a few examples of AFP's campaigns. As the organization ramps up its attacks on state renewable energy programs in 2013, these previous claims are important to keep in mind.