Lawmakers investigate if DOE SunShot funding went to lobbying

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 19, 2016

The House’s top watchdog is probing whether funds from a federal solar program were used for unlawful lobbying activities.

In letters to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and two organizations yesterday, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) questioned whether money from DOE’s SunShot Initiative was used to lobby for state rooftop solar subsidies and violated the federal anti-lobbying act.

Specifically, Chaffetz is examining SunShot funds distributed to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and Clean Energy States Alliance.

“Since 2010, DOE has given over $28 million to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. … In 2013 and 2014, IREC paid over $2.7 million to an outside law firm engaged in working with public utilities and governments to advance renewable energy interests,” says the letter to Moniz.

IREC’s team includes attorneys who represented the organization at the same law firm and have represented the group in front of state and federal regulators, the letter adds.

A companion letter to IREC says the committee is concerned about a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study finding that rooftop solar costs are higher than utility-scale solar. A third letter to the Clean Energy States Alliance says that $568,000 from the SunShot Initiative helped “advance solar initiatives supported by government officials.”

DOE has given more than $2.2 million to CESA since 2013 for activities that generally include renewable energy outreach, and more than $28 million to IREC since 2010, according to the documents.

Craig Holman, an analyst at Public Citizen, said the anti-lobbying law has been interpreted to prohibit the use of federal funds for grass-roots lobbying, which could include lobbying for state subsidies for the rooftop solar industry. However, the law has never been enforced, he said.

Chaffetz requested that documents and communications related to the SunShot Initiative be delivered to the committee by Aug. 30.

Representatives for DOE and CESA said they received their respective letters and are reviewing them. “We received the letter from the House Oversight Committee yesterday and will be responding to its request for information within the appropriate timeline,” added Larry Sherwood, IREC president and CEO.

The SunShot Initiative is a key part of the Obama administration’s push to advance solar power. In May, DOE released multiple reports showing that the initiative has reached 70 percent of its goal to cut solar power costs by 2020 (E&ENews PM, May 18). The 5-year-old program is aiming to reduce solar costs to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour or $1 per watt.