Renewable Energy

Solar energy's unexpected conservative backers

When it comes to renewable energy, Barry Goldwater Jr. is willing to admit that the Democrats did something the Republicans should have done a long time ago.

Barry Goldwater Jr. speaks against a proposed tax to be levied against residential solar leasing companies, June 4, 2014, in Phoenix.
Charlie Leight | The Arizona Republic | AP

"Conservative support for green energy has always been there, but the Democrats capitalized on it more than the Republicans," the former Republican congressman and Arizona legend told CNBC. "The Democrats did a better job of promoting it."

As a conservative, Goldwater has become a vocal advocate for solar energy in recent years. He currently serves as the chairman of "Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed" (TUSK), a solar advocacy group that is pushing for energy independence across the country.

And he doesn't think there is anything odd about being a political conservative who also challenges utility companies for the right to choose solar over traditional forms of power. In fact, he finds it to be the natural outcome of true political conservatism.

"We promote the conservative philosophy of free market, choice and competition, because as the cost of things go down, the quality goes up," he said.

Ideological roots

Technicians install solar panels on a house in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

As solar energy becomes more affordable for more Americans, pushback from utility companies has also increased as they try to maintain their market share, according to Goldwater and others. (The utility industry consistently says that it wants to work with solar, not against it.) Since 2010, the average cost to install a solar electric system has declined by 54 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Across the country, in both blue and red states, conservatives have come out in support of solar choice, albeit with differing motivations. In doing so, they are breaking the perception that green energy is strictly the domain of political liberals.

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Carl Bogus, professor of law at Roger Williams University and expert on political conservatism, said that misconception is understandable but "that's not so much for conservative philosophy as from conservative history."

He said that Americans tend to associate conservative politics with big business and often that association is valid. "But, the philosophy is not incompatible," he said. "It has more to do with self-interest than ideology."

Free markets, choice and competition

For Debbie Dooley, the conservative tenets of free markets and competition are partly why she has taken up the cause. Dooley founded the Green Tea Coalition and Conservatives for Energy Freedom to promote the cause for clean energy among conservatives.

"Tea Party activists gravitate toward free-market choice," she said. "They don't like a centralized power system, so naturally they came on board with solar, with choice and with competition."

Dooley said the United States is in the midst of a green energy revolution, and the front line is in red states. She travels across the country to protect pro-solar growth policies in states such as Indiana and West Virginia from attack by well-funded, fossil fuel groups.

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"Conservatives had been brainwashed for over a decade that green is bad, and once they get through that and see the facts, they are actually receptive," she said.

For her, it's an issue that shouldn't be divided along partisan lines. "This is a movement that unites grassroots activists from the left and the right," she said.

A moral imperative

Growing solar industry trend
Growing solar industry trend

For some on the religious right, the chance to support renewable energy is actually a way to implement teachings in the Christian faith.

"The more we use clean energy, the more we are acting as disciples of Christ," said Rev. Mitch Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN).

The EEN has been around for more than 20 years. Hescox, who is a lifelong Republican, also approaches the subject of renewable energy from a free-markets perspective, where consumers have a choice of how and where to get their energy. But he does want the government to protect solar firms from utility roadblocks in the meantime.

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"We need to have some kind of intervention to protect the solar energy companies," he said, "but eventually we need to let the markets be free and open."

He added that for evangelical Christians, the clean energy issue is actually a pro-life issue: "Anything that harms life is against us."

Don't kill it

Goldwater lives in sun-drenched Arizona, where he focuses on extending TUSK's reach across the country. He says his roof isn't big enough to include solar panels, but he does use solar hot water heaters and energy-efficient appliances.

TUSK isn't looking for the government to protect solar, but rather for it not to actively protect the utilities that attack solar. Goldwater wants to win the intellectual argument that is consistent with Republican philosophy: free markets, competition and self-reliance.

"We just want the government to stand out of the way and let the marketplace be free," he said. "And we would like to work with the utilities on this issue, to see them encourage new energy sources, rather than try to kill them."