by Julia Pyper
September 22, 2017

Representative John Szoka, a Republican from North Carolina, considers himself among the solar “converted.”

In July, a comprehensive solar bill co-sponsored by Szoka, HB 589, was signed into law. The bill -- which sets a solar deployment target of 6,800 megawatts by 2020, among other things -- was a compromise between Duke Energy, environmentalists, solar developers and conservative political groups, and ultimately passed with broad bipartisan support. “Unbeknownst to me, nobody ever thought it was going to pass,” Szoka said.

The Republican lawmaker said he learned a lot about how to pitch solar policy to conservative politicians -- like himself -- in the process of getting HB 589 approved. On a panel at Solar Power International, Szoka laid out an eight-point plan for how solar supporters should make their case to Republicans, in order of importance. I caught up with Rep. Szoka after the conference to learn more about the list.

Szoka's pointers could come in handy as the U.S. solar industry continues to engage on policy issues at both the state and the federal level -- including on the solar trade case.

Scroll down for the latest clean energy news headlines. 

Conservative reasons to support solar energy

Here’s Rep. Szoka’s list of the top eight points to make when talking to conservatives about the value of solar, and how they played out in North Carolina.

1. Free-market principles

One of the most effective arguments solar advocates can make to conservatives is that their industry is cost-competitive and doesn't need any handouts. Policy discussions should be about “unleashing the power of the free market, so that customers have the ability to meet their changing demands, leading to more reliable and affordable energy products,” Szoka said.

Free-market conservatives don’t want to hear about subsidies. In general, they want to reduce tax credits and eliminate government mandates, he said. The difficulty is that solar and other renewables do benefit from incentives. In these types of conversations, Szoka said one thing solar supporters can do is provide compelling evidence that shows how other energy sources are also subsidized.

“I believe in the free market; it’s why we have the most advanced country in the world,” he said. “When you start talking about the free market, some people will say, ‘What about the tax credits? Solar would not exist if not for the tax credits and government subsidies.’ So that’s the first big hurdle you have to get over.”

When Szoka gets this line, “I come back with, 'All energy is subsidized,'” he said. “Renewables haven’t been subsidized more, but a lot of the subsidies are more visible than for oil industry and the nuke industry.”

“When you talk to someone who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge you do, you have to point that out to them,” he said.

Take the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957, for instance, which has been renewed several since it passed. The primary purpose of the act is to compensate the nuclear industry against liability claims arising from nuclear incidents. Szoka said he’s pro-nuclear, but he knows that if the industry was forced to buy its own insurance, plants would be on the brink of shutting down.

"All I want is when people start talking about how cheap nuclear is, that they recognize the fact that it is in fact subsidized and had been subsidized for decades by the federal government,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the federal government, we wouldn’t have nuclear power.”

In North Carolina, free-market principles played out by moving the state to a competitive bidding process -- an element of the bill stakeholders spent 10 months negotiating. Stakeholders ultimately agreed to additional procurement of 2,660 megawatts over a 45-month period through a competitive bidding process led by a third-party administrator. Szoka said this approach provides customers with lower-cost energy and improved reliability, because it allows the utility to locate projects where the grid can better handle them.

HB 589 isn’t entirely incentive-free, since the bill does create a rooftop solar rebate program -- but it’s paid for by the utility, Duke Energy. Szoka said this was, surprisingly, Duke’s idea. “That indicates to me they have the intention of getting into the rooftop solar market,” he said.

2. Jobs

Job creation is a familiar talking point for all industry lobbyists. But, as Szoka pointed out, it’s also important how advocates talk about jobs. Conservatives like Szoka don’t want to mandate jobs or wages; they want to create an environment for companies to offer good-paying jobs. Szoka said it was easy for him to get behind solar when he learned how private investments in solar keep dollars in local communities and create local jobs to service the market.

Horne Brothers Construction is one example in North Carolina. The solar installer grew from 35 construction jobs, to 250 full-time construction positions, plus 300 part-time construction jobs, in just four years. These kinds of examples resonate with lawmakers, said Szoka.

3. Voter demand

There is plenty of evidence that solar enjoys widespread support -- and not just from environmental groups. Use it, Szoka said. He pointed to a 2017 North Carolina poll conducted by Conservatives for Clean Energy that found more than 80 percent of respondents were likely to support a lawmaker who encourages renewable energy options, such as wind, solar and waste-to-energy technologies. The same survey found that 73.5 percent of Trump voters are more likely to support a candidate who supports renewables.

“In North Carolina, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, unaffiliated, black, white, purple, green, young or old -- it polls off the charts,” he said.

4. Military mission readiness

As a military veteran and representative in a state that plays home to one of the largest military bases in the U.S., military mission readiness is critical in Szoka’s view. It’s also important to many other conservatives.

The Department of Defense is one of the strongest supporters of solar and other sustainable resources. That’s partly because the DOD is the largest energy consumer in the world, and is always keen to find ways to save money. From the conservative lawmaker’s perspective, “If we can help them save money on energy -- whether that’s on solar, wind or whatever else -- we’re doing ourselves a favor,” said Szoka.

The DOD is also interested in renewables because it wants to make its military bases secure, and renewable energy can help insulate those sites from attacks to the larger grid. Szoka recommended that solar supporters cite examples of military clean energy deployments.

5. Business demands

Some of North Carolina’s largest employers, including Walmart, Lowe’s, Cargill, Family Dollar and Target, have played an active role in advancing the state’s clean energy policies. Whether its economic or environmental, these companies are pursuing clean energy. And if states want to attract these businesses, they need to allow greater access to renewable energy choices, said Szoka.

HB 589 includes a "Green Source Rider" program for large corporate customers, major military installations and public universities to help them achieve their organizational sustainability goals. The bill expands the program to more customers, provides greater flexibility and improves process efficiencies, while also imposing limits that ensure costs are not spread to other ratepayers.

In a similar vein, HB 589 requires a review and filing of new net metering rates at the state's Utilities Commission to ensure customers who do not participate in rooftop solar will be not be negatively affected.

“If you want solar -- fine,” said Szoka. “But I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” That is a strong conservative principle that he said played a key role in getting North Carolina lawmakers on board with the solar bill.

6. Taxpayer savings

While electricity rates remain low in North Carolina, electricity bills continue to rise, said Szoka. Federal (including the U.S. military), state and local government agencies are seeking the flexibility renewables offer in order to curb their growing electricity bills. This, in turn, saves the taxpayer money -- which is something most conservatives can get behind.

7. Ratepayer savings

Private investment in self-generation reduces the need for monopoly utilities to build expensive traditional power plants and transmission infrastructure, thereby helping keep rates low for all ratepayers. Lawmakers need to understand the system-wide benefits of privately owned solar.

HB 589 enabled greater ratepayer savings by creating a third-party solar leasing program for residential and commercial customers

8. Private property rights

The final point on Szoka’s list of reasons why conservatives should support solar is about private property rights. North Carolinians -- and others -- should be able to choose whether or not to generate electricity on their own property and choose the best financing option available to do so, he said. That is another reason why HB 589 allowed for third-party leasing.

Summing up

When he thinks about HB 589, Szoka said he’s proudest of the fact that he and others were able to get “virtually every single stakeholder to buy it,” he said -- from the Sierra Club to Americans for Prosperity. These eight talking points played a key role in that achievement.

Szoka said he’s also proud of the fact that it gives North Carolina businesses a sense of security.

“HB 589 clarifies [the policies] not only for the utilities, but also for solar developers and small power producers,” he said. “Because the worst thing you can have for businesses is uncertainty, and there was a lot of uncertainty with dueling bills that had been filed. Some people wanted to kill solar; others like me wanted to enhance it. We can stop having those arguments now. This sets a clear path for the next four to five years for the state of North Carolina, and I think that’s really important.”

The latest state energy policy news

California, Quebec and Ontario Sign Agreement to Link Carbon Markets: California, Quebec and Ontario signed an agreement Friday to officially integrate their cap-and-trade programs, expanding the three-year partnership between California and Quebec. The agreement takes effect January 1, 2018.

NJ Board of Public Utilities to Begin State of Solar Market Review: The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities directed staff to open a proceeding to review the state of the solar market in New Jersey, and, in doing so, to solicit input from all stakeholders in the solar industry culminating in public hearings to be held in across the Garden State.

Georgia Power Introduces Renewable Energy Program for Commercial and Industrial Customers: Georgia Power has launched a new voluntary program for commercial and industrial customers under the Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI). Participating customers will receive hourly credits matching actual production as well as the solar Renewable Energy Credits from up to 200 megawatts of renewable resources procured under REDI.

Michigan Adds 4,655 Clean Energy Jobs in 2016: The state increased clean energy jobs by 5.3 percent (or 4,655), outpacing other job sectors by a factor of three, according to a new report by Clean Jobs Midwest.

Regulators Vote to Move Forward on Vogtle Nuclear Plant: Georgia regulators on Tuesday voted unanimously to accept Georgia Power’s plan to continue construction on the troubled Plant Vogtle expansion.

Competing Net-Metering Proposals Filed With Arkansas PSC: Two subgroups of a panel formed to make recommendations on the future of solar energy development in Arkansas have presented competing proposals to the state Public Service Commission, which has been studying the issue of net metering for more than a year.

Advocates Cry Foul Over New York’s Latest REV Order: The New York Public Service Commission approved an order for setting the Value of Distributed Energy Resources that solar groups say could undercut the state’s solar market.

Solar Advocates Are Not Pleased With RMP's Net-Metering Settlement: Solar and energy consumer advocates reached a settlement with Rocky Mountain Power over net metering early this month, but it turns out not everyone is on board with the terms.

Proposed “Clean Energy Standard” in New Mexico Supports Renewables, Storage, EVs: A group of stakeholders that includes New Mexico’s attorney general has petitioned the Public Regulation Commission to implement a new Clean Energy Standard rule.

Nevada's $5 Million Energy Storage Incentive Program Moves Forward: The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada has launched an investigation and rulemaking to implement a new law (SB 145) that will provide incentives for customer-sited solar paired with energy storage.

Pennsylvania Bill Restricting Solar Eligibility for RPS Advances: A bill (HB 118) that would restrict the eligibility of PV systems to comply with Pennsylvania’s solar carve-out inches ahead.