Solar group finds renewables win with independent voters

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 1, 2016

Conservative candidates trying to woo independent swing-state voters should talk more about the virtues of solar power, according to new polling released last week by the Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC).

survey of 600 independent voters in 11 states found that 90 percent of respondents favor increasing the use of solar energy, while 58 percent strongly favor the renewable energy resource.

The poll, taken March 7 to 10 by Public Opinion Strategies, is the second in recent months to examine the public’s views on solar power. It suggests a significant number of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, support policies that encourage the expansion of solar energy, including net-metering policies that allow solar owners to sell excess energy to their local utility at retail rates.

“Independent swing state voters may pick the next president. This poll shows solar energy is a key issue that could motivate them in November,” Tyson Grinstead, spokesperson for TASC and former political director for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), said in a statement. “In a particularly contentious election cycle, both parties should pay attention to any issue that can move this critical voting block.”

TASC, comprising some of the nation’s largest rooftop solar companies, has been a national leader in lobbying for policies to open electricity markets to residential and commercial solar development. The group has led campaigns in more than 40 states to promote or protect net-metering policies that pay solar owners retail rates for distributed power delivered to the grid, even as utilities and some policymakers seek to roll back such policies.

Net-metering policy battles are ongoing in a number of states, including most recently Nevada, where utility-backed changes to reduce compensation rates for net metering and charge new fees for solar owners to access the grid have angered renewable energy advocates and prompted several major solar firms to exit the state.

Nevada was among the states where TASC conducted its polling. The others were Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Regardless of state or demographics, TASC polling showed that strong majorities of independent voters agreed with statements that solar energy promotes competition among energy providers and boosts regional employment. Seventy-seven percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “a growing solar power market in America will help keep electricity rates down for consumers,” while 19 percent disagreed.

On the question of net metering, 67 percent of those polled said they were strongly or somewhat supportive of such policies, while 24 percent were strongly or somewhat opposed.

Among those polled, 26 percent said they leaned toward Republican candidates, 25 percent said they leaned toward Democrats, while 49 percent identified as independent or something else, according to survey results released by Public Opinion Strategies.

A winning GOP issue?

Lauren Randall, a spokeswoman for TASC, said that for presidential voters, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have an edge over their Republican rivals with solar-minded voters. However, the poll showed that 27 percent of independent voters could be moved to support a GOP candidate who showed more vocal support for solar.

To date, Randall said, neither of the leading Republican candidates — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — has made solar energy a theme in his campaign. In the Senate, Cruz has opposed government policies such as subsidies and tax credits for renewable energy resources like solar and wind power.

However, Randall noted that voter opinions on issues of consumer energy choice and free markets are likely to resonate with Republican values.

“We haven’t seen evidence of it yet, but perhaps it will sway the candidates,” she said. Voter opinion on solar issues could also resonate in legislative races, both at the national and state level, she added.

TASC’s survey was the second in recent months gauging public opinion on solar.

A recent study by E Source focused on perceptions of utilities also found strong support for expanding solar among U.S. and Canadian residential ratepayers, including the continuation of tax credits and other government subsidies for solar energy.

The E Source study found that enthusiasm for solar energy was strongest in the West, with 85 percent of survey respondents supporting pro-solar policies, followed by the South at 81 percent.

“Given this overwhelming support, utility efforts to block subsidies for solar installations are likely to be seen in a negative light by most of their customers, resulting in a hit on the utility’s brand image,” E Source said.