A recent trend has seen utilities deciding that since they haven’t been able to beat back the rise of rooftop solar companies, they might as well join them (or at least steal their business model). But the Walton Family, owners of Walmart as well as a stake in a manufacturer of solar arrays for utilties, aren’t ready to give up the fight.
A new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that, through their Walton Family Foundation, the Waltons have given $4.5 million dollars to groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Americans for Prosperity—groups that are attacking renewable energy policies at the state level and, specifically, pushing for fees on rooftop solar installations. The head of ALEC has even gone so far as to denigrate owners of rooftop solar installations as “freeriders.”
But support for groups seeking to halt the rise of clean energy is only half the story. According to Vice News, the Waltons own a 30% stake in First Solar, a company that makes solar arrays for power plants as “an economically attractive alternative or complement to fossil fuel electricity generation,” per its 2013 annual report, which also identifies “competitors who may gain in profitability and financial strength over time by successfully participating in the global rooftop PV solar market” as a threat to First Solar’s future profitability.
Perhaps it was that threat to its long-term strategic plan that led First Solar CEO James Hughes to publish an op-ed in the Arizona Republic voicing his support for a proposal by Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest energy utility, to charge owners of rooftop solar installations a fee of $50 – $100 a month, which would effectively wipe out any economic benefits of generating one’s own power. A compromise was eventually reached to adopt a lower fee of roughly $5 per household, but even that has had a chilling effect on the growth of rooftop solar in Arizona, as residential solar installations subsequently dropped 40% in APS territory.
Bryan Miller, president of the Alliance for Solar Choice, said at the time that First Solar’s move was unprecedented: “no solar company has publicly advocated against solar until First Solar did it.”
Having collected its scalp in Arizona, First Solar is now attacking policies that foster rooftop solar in California and Nevada, according to the ILSR report.
“First Solar builds solar arrays for utilities and, as such, stands to benefit if households are blocked from generating their own electricity, even if it means slowing the overall growth of solar,” the ILSR report states.
While this gives the Waltons—a family worth an estimated $149 billion (three Waltons rank among the top 10 richest Americans)—a clear financial incentive to oppose rooftop solar, it doesn’t make much sense in light of Walmart’s very public commitment to solar energy. But, according to the report, it’s not as much about shrewd business tactics or the future of energy as it is about consolidating power in corporate hands:
For nearly a decade, the Waltons have presented themselves as environmentalists. But as this report, and our previous reports on Walmart’s environmental impact, demonstrate, beneath the family’s public environmentalism lies a deeper agenda: furthering a highly concentrated, and deeply destructive, corporate economic model. The Waltons’ environmentalism is best understood not as a counterpoint to this imperative, but rather as a tool in service to it.
Rooftop solar is a threat to corporatists like the Waltons precisely because it decentralizes power, literally and figuratively. “It’s moving the U.S. from a system in which electricity generation is controlled by a small number of investor-owned utilities and toward a future in which households produce energy and reap the financial benefits,” the report states, adding that the solar industry now employs about 143,000 Americans, half of which are rooftop solar installation techs who make, on average, $24 per hour, “more than twice what the average Walmart associate makes.”
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