SolarCity admits funding outside group targeting Arizona utility regulators

Dive Brief:

  • SolarCity, the leading U.S. residential solar installer, has confirmed it contributed to the Checks and Balances Project, an advocacy group that has questioned relationships between regulators and utilities in Arizona. SolarCity worked against efforts by the same utilities in regulatory proceedings on net energy metering (NEM).
  • Efforts by Checks and Balances and others led to allegations of improper communications between members of the regulatory body and the companies they regulate, including utilities in the state. None of the allegations have yet led to any action against Arizona Corporation Commissioners Susan Bitter Smith, Bob Stump, Tom Forese, and Doug Little.
  • Arizona Public Service (APS), the state’s dominant electricity provider, has also acknowledged funding an outside political group. The utility in 2013 contributed to the organization 60-Plus, which campaigned against NEM during a regulatory proceeding that year. Critics say APS also contributed to outside groups that spent funds to support the ACC campaigns of Forese and Little.

Dive Insight:

SolarCity is the nation's largest solar installer, with more than a third of the residential market. News that it had contributed to Checks and Balances reportedly angered regulators, who have been the targets of its campaigns in the past. 

“I just find it astonishing that the biggest U.S. provider of rooftop solar power is funding the effort to harass regulators whose decisions affect their bottom lines,” Stump told the Arizona Republic. “They have pursued me with particular vehemence. That is payback for my criticism of [rooftop solar group] TUSK and it's, frankly, dishonest campaign tactics.”

SolarCity said it had never hid its involvement with Checks and Balances, which bills itself as a nonprofit good governance group.

"SolarCity had never been asked whether it had supported Checks and Balances, and once asked, we provided an answer," SolarCity Communications Director Will Craven told the paper.

Craven said SolarCity funding went to the Renew American Prosperity (RAP) Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group that provided most of the support for Checks and Balances. He said that while the installer came clean about its political spending, APS has not been forthcoming about its involvement in regulatory dockets and Arizona Corporation Commission elections. 

“It’s unfortunate that Pinnacle West [the parent of APS] and APS have not been truthful about their funding of anti-solar organizations,” Craven said.

Allegations that APS helped fund groups that supported the election of Forese and Little were raised in a September ACC filing by former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman and an attorney representing former ACC commissioners Bill Mundell, Renz Jennings and solar company Sunrun.

That filing alleged that Forese and Little, then-candidates for the ACC, were "the beneficiaries of $3.2 million in election support that is generally and objectively believed to have come from, on behalf of, or at the direction of, Arizona Public Service (APS) or its parent company, Pinnacle West Capital Corporation (Pinnacle West)."

ACC Comissioner Robert Burns recently asked Pinnacle West CEO Don Brandt to have APS fully disclose its spending in the 2014 election.

Controversy has consumed the ACC in recent years. Former commissioners and solar advocates asked newly elected commissioners Forese and Little to recuse themselves on APS-related decisions, but they declined. Commissioner Bob Stump has been investigated by the Checks and Balances Project for communications with APS, had his cell phone data requested, and was also asked to recuse himself, but declined as well.

“I would be derelict in my constitutional and ethical duties if I allowed political bad behavior to affect my judgment as it pertains to public policy,” he told the Republic.

Filed Under: Solar & Renewables Distributed Energy Regulation & Policy