Whose hand is at work in Arizona solar subsidy attacks?

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It could be the heat. Phoenix last month sweated out 118 Fahrenheit and the mercury across Arizona hasn't dipped much below 100F since.

But the simmering battle for Arizona's rooftop has now boiled over into a full-scale war that doesn't look like it will cool any time soon. This is an energy industry drama worthy of a plotline in Dallas, complete with dirty tricks and a mystery over a smoking gun.

As in all wars, the first casualty is truth. Last month, adverts started running on local cable TV that portrayed third party ownership (TPO) specialists Sunrun and SunCity as “new Solyndras”; corporate raiders from California ready to shake down ordinary Arizonans of their hard earned tax dollars.

I urge you to watch the ad yourself.

“We've seen this before,” the ad intones. “Connected companies getting corporate welfare now California's new Solyndras – Sunrun and SunCity – are getting rich off hard working Arizonans. Out-of-state billionaires using your hard earned dollars to subsidise their wealthy customers. It's not right. We don't need this California-style corporate welfare in Arizona.”

The ad is so bombastic and ridiculous it could easily pass for an amusing parody, all the more so because it advertises a website called AZSolarFacts.com, a non-profit backed by the right-leaning retirees advocacy group 60 Plus – more of that later. But this is the land of attack ads and free speech where you can pretty much say what you like and get away with it as lies and outrageous claims are protected by the all-too-often abused constitution.

However, the solar industry is not so much up in arms about such a risible false message as who is behind these ads.

Now this is where the plot thickens. Arizona Public Services (APS), the state's largest utility company, denies any direct involvement despite its vociferous resistance to the spread of solar through net energy metering. APS claims that residential PV systems cost its non-solar customers US$18 million a year because solar customers dodge paying US$1,000 a year for services everyone connected to the grid needs.

APS says that PV installations have grown from 900 rooftop systems in 2009 to 18,000 in June 2013, averaging an additional 550 installations each month. Clearly, APS is worried about its own margins.

Earlier this month, APS filed proposals that could almost double demand charges for residential users and cut the NEM rate APS has to pay solar providers from retail rates at 12c/kWh to wholesale rates at 4c/kWh.

But if APS is waging its war through state regulators, could it be prosecuting that war through television ad? So far, the utility has denied involvement.

“Net metering is an important customer issue that unfortunately has become highly politicised,” a spokeswoman told the Phoenix Business Journal. “Although we welcome public support from organisations like 60 Plus, their opinions on the topic are theirs alone. We have not contributed any funding to 60 Plus, but going forward we would certainly support organisations that share our position on important customer issues.”

So a denial of current support, but a promise of future funding? Others smell a rat and believe that there is already a strong connection between the ads and APS.

Barry Goldwater, a former Republican House Representative in Washington and chairman of the group Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK), said in a statement: “It’s disappointing to see APS hiding behind consultants and political action committees. If they feel so strongly about their anti-solar messaging, then let them put their name on it.”

So far, we only know for sure of the involvement of the 60 Plus Association, a conservative version of the Washington-based Association of Retired Americans that focuses on low taxation, social security and healthcare. 60 Plus claims that NEM hits seniors the hardest, that's why it has launched the ad.

Jim Martin, 60 Plus Association chairman, said: “The skyrocketing energy rates facing Arizonans will hit seniors and those on fixed incomes the hardest. We support solar power and very much want it to be sustainable in the long term.

“That’s why rates must be fair to all customers. We released this ad to tell the public why solar companies are really against net metering reform — unfortunately, they depend heavily on corporate welfare for their financial bottom line.”

Protecting seniors on fixed incomes from rate inflation is laudable.

“As temperatures soar across Arizona, so has the debate between out-of-state rooftop solar companies and APS over net metering reform,” says AZSolarFacts.com. “This is a complicated and important issue for our senior communities served by APS, and our concern is that seniors are being sold a rotten deal by those representing these out-of-state companies – companies that want little more than to be the next Solyndra benefiting from taxpayer handouts.”

The link between installers and financers Sunrun and SolarCity and the failed thin-film solar company which took more than a half a billion in federal loans is stretched so thinly that the real movers are visible behind the scenes.

Suspicions that this cause for “seniors” could be a wolf in sheep's clothing intensified when APS confirmed that Sean Noble, an Arizona political consultant, is a paid consultant at Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the utility's parent company.

Furthermore, Noble is under investigation for laundering campaign money in California and is linked to 60 Plus and Koch Industries, run by the billionaire arch advocates of dirty energy.

There is much at stake in Arizona, where 38% of the electricity generated is from coal, 28% from nuclear and 27% from natural gas. Could this finally be an admission that solar is now a worthy enough enemy to engage in battle, turning such attacks into a form of flattery?

Goldwater is convinced that APS is behind these attacks. “It's like asking if the sun came up this morning,” he told PV Tech. “Why else would 60 Plus be involved in what is a local issue unless APS were involved?

“Utilities want to destroy solar and they don't want to lose their monopoly. They ignored the rooftop market and allowed private companies to do a terrific job.

“There is definitely a war against solar not only in Arizona but nationwide – Arizona is just the test ground.”

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