Maddow Condemns Non-Existent Plans to Criminalize Solar Power

In a bravura display of rhetorical contortion, Rachel Maddow spent 10 minutes last night talking about net metering without actually uttering the words themselves -- all the better to prevent her gullible viewers from taking a closer look at this problematic policy.

As mandated in 43 states and the District of Columbia, net metering allows small-scale generators of electricity, such as those with solar panels on their roofs, to sell excess electricity back to power companies. Utilities don't like it because most states require power companies to buy this electricity at retail prices, rather than the far lower wholesale cost. (Video after the jump)

On her MSNBC show Monday night, Maddow reduced straightforward disputes over this policy (with differences of opinion on both sides of the partisan divide) into a simplistic depiction of greedy power companies, conservative state legislators, think-tank apologists and the ubiquitous Koch brothers all attempting to criminalize solar energy -- to "destroy the sun," as Maddow actually claimed at one point.

Here's what Maddow asserted about legislation approved by state legislators in Oklahoma --

Tonight, Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a new law which makes you pay a special fee, it would essentially fine people for the crime of using solar power. If you want to use the sun for electricity instead of your local coal-fired power plant, the redder-than-red-state Oklahoma government has figured out a way to make you pay for that crime. This bill passed the Oklahoma Senate last month, it passed the Oklahoma House on a vote of 83 to 5 after no debate. And tonight, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed it.

This is tantamount to a "sun tax," Maddow complained, and one pushed over the last couple of years in Oklahoma and elsewhere by Koch Industries and the "corporate-funded" American Legislative Exchange Council.

Maddow doubled-down on the claim a few minutes later while talking about a similar effort in Arizona --

In Arizona they came up with a plan to fine people $50 to $100 every month if you used solar energy. Imagine -- solar energy in Arizona. Crazy idea, right?

Wow, that kinda gets your attention, doesn't it? Considering the source, this bears a passing resemblance to what is actually happening. Maddow elaborates and cites a source, one that undercuts what she's claiming --

But the LA Times this weekend had a nice write-up about how Barry Goldwater Jr., and other Republicans not affiliated with the Koch brothers' networks or ALEC, joined the effort against the anti-solar bill in Arizona and pursued the all-Republican state body that had to rule on the issue to bring the solar users fee from $100 a month potentially down to $5 a month, a much more reasonable fee to help pay for maintenance and overhead issues on the electric grid.

As for that "nice write-up" in the Times, the story described net metering as forming "the linchpin of the solar-energy business model. Without it, firms say, solar power would be prohibitively expensive." (emphasis added)

More from the LA Times story --

In Arizona, a major utility and a tangle of secret donors and operatives with ties to ALEC and the Kochs invested millions to persuade state regulators to impose a monthly fee of $50 to $100 on net-metering customers.

Operative phrase here -- net-metering customers. In other words, those connected to the electric grid and intending to sell their excess electricity back to power companies. Based on what Maddow said, everyone with solar panels on his or her property, even those off the grid, would have been hit with this "fine."

The much-demonized ALEC released a report on net metering last month, written by industry analyst Tom Tanton, that does much to reveal the basis for Maddow's reticence on the subject.

While net metering policies vary from state to state, Tanton writes, "customers with such systems are typically credited at the full retail rate for any excess electricity they generate. ... Electric companies are required to buy this power at the retail rate, even though it would cost less to produce the electricity themselves or to buy the power on the wholesale market. ... Net metering, as currently implemented, is a regressive tax subsidizing the rich by picking the pockets of the poor."

Under net metering in Wisconsin, the retail price of electricity is "400 percent more than wholesale," Tanton writes. Under the policy in Arizona, utilities are required to pay "over three times the cost for electricity than from the competitive market. Regulators then pass these added costs onto non-solar customers in order to buy that energy."

As of last November, the average US residential price of electricity was around 12.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Tanton writes. But the cost to utilities from wholesale generators is far less -- 4-5 cents per kWh during periods of peak consumption and 2-3 cents during off-peak. In Hawaii, he points out, solar installations have doubled in number since 2007 -- and solar tax credits in the state soared from $34 million in 2010 to $173 million in 2012.

But while net-metering customers can sell their excess electricity at much higher rates than power companies would spend on the wholesale market, they do not help cover the enormous cost of maintaining the electric grid. That's where the $5 "fee" -- not "fine" -- imposed by the Arizona legislature comes in.

The more one looks at net metering, the more it becomes clear why Maddow can't bring herself to describe its specifics, much less say it.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Liberated ex-liberal from the People's Republic of Massachusetts