SolarCity backs Arizona utility regulator Robert Burns for upcoming election

Dive Brief:

  • SolarCity, the leading rooftop solar developer in the nation, has begun advertising on behalf of Arizona Corporation Commissioner Robert Burns, who is up for re-election this year, the Arizona Republic reports. 
  • Commissioner Burns, a Republican, is running for one of three open seats against six other contenders, bringing to the total to five Republicans and two Democrats. 
  • SolarCity's support comes after Burns requested utility companies stay out of the election and its financing, in hopes of avoiding the dark money controversy that has clouded the 2014 election. 

​Dive Insight:

During his time at the ACC, Burns has shown consistent support of the rooftop solar sector and demands for major utility Arizona Public Service Co. to open its books so political contributions can be investigated.

The 2014 election for the Arizona Corporation Commission was particularly rancorous, coming a year after an intense debate over the net metering policy. At the time, solar advocates and utilities voiced concerns over each other's political contributions. The election issues are now part of an ongoing investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Notably, APS was accused of contributing funds to an independent group supporting the campaigns of current Commissioners Tom Forese and Doug Little. The utility has neither confirmed nor denied those allegations raised in a Sept. 2015 filing during a second heated debate over net metering.

But Burns has also faced accusations of improper ties to a telecommunications trade group that still listed him as a lobbyist, despite the regulator's claim that he cut ties with the group before joining the ACC.

SolarCity, too, was involved in the election fallout, supporting public watchdog group Checks and Balances Project, which pushed for the release of text messages between Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump, executives at Arizona Public Service (APS) and the head of a political group connected to the utility. 

Earlier this month, Burns hired attorney and Georgetown University law professor Scott Hempling to conduct an inquiry into the ACC's ratemaking processes and investigate any improper influence. 

SolarCity's decision to openly support Burns appears to mark a departure from the company's recent policy strategy. After years of supporting aggressive lobbying organizations like Checks & Balances and The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), SolarCity withdrew support for those groups and appointed former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff as their Chief Policy Officer this year, signaling it wanted a more collaborative relationship with utilities.

SolarCity was able to secure a net metering compromise in New York, but ran into trouble in Arizona. After agreeing to withdraw a pro-net metering ballot proposal, negotiations between the company and Arizona Public Service collapsed earlier this summer with no agreement on incentives. 

While the parties declined to tell local media why they halted talks, publicly backing a regulatory candidate could indicate a return to public political battles over solar policy, which had largely been confined to regulatory hearings and negotiation rooms this year. 

It could also put SolarCity on the wrong side of regulators. In an interview last month, outgoing Nevada Commissioner David Noble — who oversaw his state's rancorous net metering debate — warned solar companies to stay away from overt political displays if they want to collaborate with utilities and the commission.  

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Filed Under: Solar & Renewables Distributed Energy Regulation & Policy
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