Is the California Coalition Fighting Subsidies For Rooftop Solar a Fake Grassroots Group?

Over 70 member organizations in the coalition received charitable contributions in 2020 worth $1.67 million from big California utilities that see solar as the competition.

An installer for the solar company, Sunrun, uses a level while installing solar panels on the roof of a home in Granada Hills. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

An installer for the solar company, Sunrun, uses a level while installing solar panels on the roof of a home in Granada Hills. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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In the fight over California’s rooftop solar policy, a coalition that claims to represent low-income, senior and environmental leaders is running ads warning about a cost shift that forces consumers to subsidize solar for people who live in mansions.

This message, by Affordable Clean Energy for All, is trying to influence the debate as California regulators consider rules that would sharply reduce the financial benefits of owning rooftop systems.

But Affordable Clean Energy for All is not a grassroots movement. It is a public relations campaign sponsored by big utility companies that stand to benefit from policies that hurt rooftop solar. Many of the 100-plus groups that make up the coalition have received charitable donations or other financial support from the utilities. Few of them wanted to talk about the campaign when contacted by Inside Climate News.

The utilities’ campaign is using what watchdog groups say is a familiar playbook from across the country, with community groups providing a relatable face for advocacy messages that align with those of the utilities. If the result is a policy that hurts rooftop solar, that could be a big setback for California’s push to get to net-zero emissions, an effort that is counting on a continued expansion of solar and other customer-owned energy systems.

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But even as some environmentalists question the coalition’s motives, the group’s message resonates with some consumers because there is little dispute that upper- and middle-income households have gotten a disproportionately large share of solar subsidies. 

Nonetheless, many community groups say inequities can be addressed in a way that accelerates building rooftop solar and energy storage, with an emphasis on helping people that struggle the most to pay utility bills and are more likely than others to feel the effects of a changing climate.

It is “poppycock” for the utilities to claim to be the ones standing up for equity, said the Rev. Ambrose Carroll, a pastor of an Oakland church and executive director of Green the Church, a nonprofit that works with Black churches on environmental issues.

“It is very disingenuous and it is a move of power to, on a whim, decide to co-sign for the name of equity and put its name onto something,” Carroll said.

His organization is one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Environmental Equity and Economics, or CEEE, which sees rooftop solar as an essential part of democratizing the energy system.

For groups like his, Affordable Clean Energy for All is pure “AstroTurf,” or fake grassroots, and the latest of many examples of utilities using their philanthropy to nudge community groups to take stances that may be contrary to the groups’ interests.

Indeed, there has been a pattern of groups representing low-income consumers and communities of color agreeing to sign on as supporters for utilities’ agenda, said Esperanza Vielma, executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. Her organization is another co-founder of CEEE.

“I’m not blaming those people who are part of that coalition,” she said, about Affordable Clean Energy for All. “I am blaming [the utilities] for using them.”

In an emailed statement made on behalf of Affordable Clean Energy for All, spokesperson Kathy Fairbanks called the AstroTurf label “ridiculous,” and said that each coalition member chose to join “based on the best interests of the constituencies they represent. To suggest otherwise is offensive and demeaning to these organizations.”

“Our coalition was established to educate and engage diverse organizations whose memberships are negatively impacted by the state’s 25-year-old rooftop subsidy,” Fairbanks said.

She added that the coalition’s members support rooftop solar. “This policy discussion has never been about whether rooftop solar will or should continue in California—it’s about how much the subsidies should be and who should pay for them,” she said.

Affordable Energy for All has sponsored television and radio ads, and a website, FixtheCostShift.com.

“A major flaw in California policy is forcing consumers who can’t afford rooftop solar to subsidize wealthier homeowners who can,” a narrator says in a television ad showing a mansion with solar panels, followed by images of beleaguered consumers.

A screenshot from a television advertisement paid for Affordable Clean Energy for All.

The coalition spent nearly $840,000 on television and radio ads to air in California from mid-January through late February, according to data compiled by Kantar/CMAG. Christine Arena, a former public relations and marketing executive and founder of a social media impact company, said that figure isn’t unusual, but called it an “aggressive” messaging campaign.

‘A Big Step Backward’

California is the nation’s leader in rooftop solar and home to influential solar business and advocacy groups.

The state helped to build its market for rooftop solar with decades of incentive programs. One long-standing incentive is “net metering,” which means that customers with rooftop solar can sell excess electricity back to the grid and receive a utility bill credit.

California utility regulators have said that the continued growth of rooftop solar has meant that consumers with solar are paying low utility bills, which leads to a shift in which non-solar customers are paying more to help cover the costs of maintaining the grid. The Public Advocates Office, an independent consumer advocate within the California Public Utilities Commission, has estimated that current solar policies lead to billions of dollars of subsidies for rooftop solar owners that are paid for by other consumers.

Most of the benefits have gone to middle- or upper-income households, but solar is becoming more accessible to people with lower incomes, according to several studies, including one issued last year by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The California Public Utilities Commission has spent the last few years working on new rules that would aim to reduce or eliminate this cost shift. In December, the panel released a proposed decision that would cut the rates paid to rooftop solar owners for excess electricity and impose a new monthly charge on them that would be the highest in the country.

The proposal is in line with what the state’s major electric utilities—Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison—have long wanted. Utilities have campaigned against rooftop solar because they view it as competition.

But the backlash has been strong, with environmental and business groups saying the plan would decimate the rooftop solar industry and damage the push under California law to get to net-zero emissions by 2045. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the people urging the commission to reject the proposal. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he said the PUC proposal would make “solar more expensive for everyone” and do “nothing to help our most vulnerable.” He also said it represented “a big step backward” in meeting the state’s emissions goals. 

Groups representing the solar industry and environmental advocates have said in filings that the utilities and the Public Advocates Office are overestimating the cost shift and are not grasping the importance of rooftop solar as part of a broader strategy to reduce emissions. The solar and environmental groups have proposed their own revisions to net metering rules, which they say would reduce the cost shift while doing less harm to the solar industry.

The commission’s proposal would cause lasting damage to the industry. The market research firm Wood Mackenzie issued a report last month that says the California plan will make rooftop solar much more expensive for customers, which would cut the state’s rooftop solar market in half by 2024 compared to what it would have been otherwise. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he has concerns about the commission’s proposal. He can’t order changes by the commission, which is an independent body, but he did appoint four of the five members, and his comments are likely to have an influence.

Last week, the commission said it would not vote on the proposal at its Feb. 10 meeting and that the issue was being put on hold until further notice. This is because one of the commissioners has asked for extra time to review the voluminous testimony and consider making changes to the plan.

It is in this context—a controversial proposal for rooftop solar in the place where rooftop solar is popular—that utilities are working to convince officials and the public that their side is the one standing up for people who struggle to pay utility bills, while the solar industry wants to protect its bottom line.

Charitable Donations Worth $1.67 Million to Coalition Members

Affordable Clean Energy for All announced its formation in a Feb. 24, 2021 news release, describing itself as a “diverse group of clean energy, seniors, faith-based, community and business groups.”

The initial release quoted leaders of two groups in the coalition, the California Alliance for Retired Americans and Asians in Energy. It doesn’t mention the names of the electricity utilities. (Susie Y. Wong, founder and president of Asians in Energy, said in an email that the organization was an early coalition supporter and is now “neutral” and listening to both sides of the debate.)

Gil Jaramillo, executive director of the Tulare Kings Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in California’s Central Valley, recalls that he started receiving emails from the coalition about a year ago. Its stated mission—to protect low-income energy consumers—sounded worthy of support, so he signed on, he said. 

Fairbanks, Affordable Clean Energy for All’s spokeswoman, is a partner in a Sacramento public relations firm that says one of its specialties is “grassroots advocacy.” PG&E and Southern California Edison have paid the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past two years, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

Affordable Clean Energy for All didn’t highlight its ties to utilities, but it didn’t hide them either. The three utilities were all listed as members of the organization, among a list of more than 100 organizations.

In a July hearing before the public utilities commission, Carla Peterman, an executive vice president for PG&E, said under cross examination that she was aware of Affordable Clean Energy for All and that her company had donated to the group. Asked about donations by PG&E to the organizations that are members of the coalition, she said she didn’t have that information available.

But the donations are public record. A review of the most recent disclosures by utilities of their charitable giving, from 2020, shows that 71 members of the coalition received $1.67 million in donations or some other form of financial support from at least one of the electric utilities.

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Fifty-three members did not receive money from the utilities, at least not in 2020.

The financial ties between the utilities and the members of the coalition are well known by organizations that are part of the case before the commission, and have been reported by the media, including in a Los Angeles Times story in November about the broader debate.

The number of members has fluctuated and now is about 125, which includes members listed on the coalition’s website and organizations that are not listed as members but whose leaders signed a Feb. 2 letter to the commission.

Contacted for comment, the utilities referred questions to Fairbanks.

‘Voice to the Voiceless’

Over several days, Inside Climate News contacted nearly all of the social justice and community advocacy groups listed as coalition members. Most did not respond, though a few either said they didn’t want to discuss their involvement or referred requests for comment to Fairbanks. 

The Rev. Frank Jackson Jr., chairman and CEO of Village Solutions Foundation, a coalition member based in Southern California, emailed a statement saying Affordable Clean Energy for All provides a “voice to the voiceless,” adding that while his organization supports rooftop solar, “it’s wrong that people from low-income, our most vulnerable, least able to afford it, communities are paying more in their electric bills to cover the costs for who can, most afford, to take advantage of the benefits of solar panels.”

When asked if Southern California Edison’s recent $50,000 donation to his group influenced his support for the coalition, Jackson said that it was not a factor and that his sole motivation for joining was to relieve the strain of rising utility bills on the low-income and senior populations he serves. 

Similarly, The Arc of Riverside County’s executive director, Erin Stream, stated in an email that her organization supports ideas that create a more affordable life for the developmentally disabled people they serve, adding that any further questions should go to Fairbanks.

Disparate Views on Equity and Energy 

In addition to community groups, Affordable Clean Energy for All includes heavyweights of the business community, like the California Chamber of Commerce, and labor unions, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose employees work for the utilities.

The coalition and the utilities are far from alone in supporting big changes to net metering. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental advocacy organization, and the Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocate, are among the other prominent groups that say there is a harmful cost shift taking place.

On the other side are solar business groups and other environmental advocates, including the California Solar & Storage Association and the Sierra Club, and several coalitions of community groups. The largest coalition is Save California Solar, which includes hundreds of individuals and groups. (Fairbanks, in her emailed statement, noted that utility companies haven’t only given to Affordable Clean Energy for All members. Southern California Edison, she said, had contributed funding to three organizations aligned with Save California Solar.) 

Both sides have made the case that their views would bring more equity to the energy system.

At the same time, some community organizations have not fully embraced either side and are talking in a more nuanced way about how to make the energy system more equitable.

“The communities we organize with and advocate alongside speak on their own behalf,” said a letter released last year by nine environmental justice organizations, including the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “Our voices will not be co-opted by external parties and interests that do not directly represent us or speak for us.”

Hiding Behind Community Groups? 

Utilities have shown a pattern of using charitable donations to encourage community groups to support the utilities’ policy priorities.

The Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, has investigated these practices, including in a 2019 report, “Strings Attached: How Utilities Use Charitable Giving to Influence Politics and Increase Investor Profits.” The authors found dozens of examples of well-respected community groups that received money from utilities and then took actions to support the utilities.

The report did not look closely at California, but David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, said he sees the signs of a familiar dynamic in the rooftop solar debate.

Utilities “hide behind groups whom they’re paying to speak on their behalf,” he said.

Ambrose Carroll, the executive director of Green the Church, said he and his organization view rooftop solar as essential for building a fairer energy system. But he added that solar policy is not near the top of the list of concerns in the Black church and Black communities.

“Nowhere in our conversation, nowhere on the ground level, are people looking around and saying, ‘Well there are people in other communities getting solar and now our bills are going up.’”

He warns that any group should be careful about claiming to speak for a community, and that people should be skeptical when powerful companies are saying they are the ones who have a community’s best interests at heart.