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The War On Solar Vs. The War On Coal

Originally published on IEEFA.
By Karl Cates

Judging by press coverage both mainstream and marginal, there’s one epic fight—and pretty much one epic fight only—going on in America’s utility-energy industry: The “war on coal.”

A Google News search today turns up 6,160 articles that use that exact phrase, which has become a rallying cry in the mining and utility industry campaign over federal crackdowns on smokestack emissions.

Coal-Solar-coverage-451x300The “war on coal” is old news in some respects. It was part of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, when he used it in campaign tours through Appalachia, where he sought to create the impression that he had something in common with working people. Romney’s campaign even released a television ad called “The War on Coal.”

Probably the most prominent recent usage of “war on coal” is from April of last year, when Tony Alexander, the erstwhile CEO of FirstEnergy, got beaucoup press for a speech in Washington before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he said a “war on coal” was hurting FirstEnergy’s business. The gist of Alexandar’s complaint was that the “war on coal” was adding to the coal-fired portion of the utility industry’s vulnerability to the rise of renewables and energy-efficiency initiatives.

Slogans supporting war on pretty much anything have a ring to them, evidently. They date back to LBJ’s War on Poverty, the war on drugs of the 1970s and 1980s, and the all-too-current war on terror. Fox News is the petri dish of war-on word constructions, seasonally trotting out the “war on Christmas” every year and running “war on marriage” screen crawls whenever gay-rights movements make progress. There’s even a Fox News “war on food,” which is being diabolically orchestrated by General Michelle Obama from her White House kitchen garden.

Yet there’s one war Fox News has studiously avoided and that most of the rest of the press has overlooked too: the war on solar.

Just like Googling “war on coal,” you can search for “war on solar” and get different outcomes depending on how you go about the search. Googling the three words together—war on solar—will yield 151 million hits in which each word appears in the same article in one fashion or another. Isolate the phrase by putting quotation marks around it—“war on solar”—and the number drops off a cliff, to 62,600. Narrow it even further, limiting it to Google News, and it shrinks to 340, not much compared to the 6,160 for “war on coal.” A similar search on Meltwater News, a private database that delves deeper into media activity in some ways than Google News does, shows a similarly striking disparity: More than 16,000 “war on solar” hits in 2014 compared to fewer than 100 for “war on solar.”

It may come as a surprise that the war on solar is articulated at all in the press. The still-nascent solar industry lacks the public-relations muscle of the utility and mining industries. Whatever direct lobbying influence it has in Washington or in state legislative corridors is picayunish compared to the kind of firepower a Peabody Coal or a FirstEnergy can bring to bear. Solar companies also lack much of a competitive presence in the campaign-contribution industry.

But there is a war on solar. It’s happening nationally in congressional reluctance to extend tax credits that encourage solar-energy development. It is being waged locally and effectively in states that most recently include Hawaii, Indiana and Washington, where utility and mining interests have had lawmakers draft legislation to put restrictions on solar development.

Organizations pressing the war on solar are numerous and well funded. They include the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a regressive organization that brings big companies and lawmakers together to write or rewrite state laws. (ALEC has crossed the line in so many ways on so many issues that some high-profile corporate members have left out of sheer embarrassment, including most recently Northrop Grumman and—before them—Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kraft.)

Other soldiers in the war on solar include the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based utility-company association that lobbies Congress; Americans for Tax Reform, the Grover Norquist group that focuses maniacally on undermining the financial stability of the U.S. government; and Americans for Prosperity, the shadowy and notoriously well-financed organization that works at the behest of the industrialist Koch Brothers.

The goal of the war on solar, of course, is to kill a budding industry before it can get its legs. Much of its strategy is in a state-by-state campaign the employs two tactics: reducing state-government commitments to the percentage of energy acquired from renewables and repealing “net-metering” laws that fairly compensate homeowners and businesses for the solar energy they produce.

The stakes in the war on solar are not insignificant. The Solar Energy Industries Association, which has been around since 1973, reports it its latest numbers that 36 percent of all new electricity-generation capacity in the U.S. in the first three quarters of 2014 came from solar. It puts the total number of solar-industry jobs in the U.S. at 174,000, almost twice the number of coal-mining jobs nationally.

Yet the war on solar remains starkly underreported, and vastly deserving of much more and better coverage than it’s gotten so far.

Karl Cates is IEEFA’s director of media relations.

Reprinted with permission.

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