Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom discusses where alternative energy can fit into a conservative political philosophy, how to build bipartisan support for clean energy, and her vision for state and federal policy.
"We should start by looking at providing choice and giving consumers a choice where they purchase their electricity from," Dooley said.
"Renewables, especially solar, poll very well among conservatives," Dooley said, and can be advanced with "talking points and messages that appeal to both sides of the political spectrum."
Georgia’s Debbie Dooley is a founding member of the Tea Party movement, as well as an advocate for renewable energy and president of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. She has partnered with groups like the Sierra Club in support of efforts to promote renewable energy at the state level, such as the 2016 Florida ballot proposal that exempted solar panels from property taxes. She also helped defeat a second measure in Florida that would have allowed utility companies to charge fees on solar owners.
In an interview with CEFF, Dooley discussed where alternative energy can fit into a conservative political philosophy, how to build bipartisan support for clean energy, and her vision for state and federal policy. This transcript has been lightly edited.
CEFF: How did you first get interested in energy as an issue?
Dooley: Essentially, it was a fight with Georgia Power over the fiscal irresponsibility of their nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. I began to do investigation about alternative energy forms that can empower the consumer and provide some competition. I began to look at solar and renewables and I liked the freedom that they brought to the table.
CEFF: Could you lay out what the logic based on conservative principles is for renewable energy?
Dooley: Number one, one of the biggest conservative principles is supposed to be fiscal responsibility. And you know, it's more fiscally responsible to prevent damage than it is to clean up the damage that pollution has done. It’s more fiscally responsible to use wind or solar or hydro energy or anything like that than it is to go out and build a new nuclear plant.
CEFF: You've described your work as advocacy of “energy freedom.” What does energy freedom look like?
Dooley: Well one of the things that’s going on in my home state of Georgia, and I’ve seen it in other states, is that they are passing what are called PPA [Power Purchase Agreement] bills. People can have solar panels on their rooftop and enter into a private contract with the person who installed them, and they can save money on their power bills. I fully believe that individuals should have the right to sell excess solar power to their neighbors if they so choose. And if they don’t have that ability, they should then be able to take advantage of net metering and sell back to the power company. That’s freedom, the freedom to put up solar panels or use renewables, and I think that’s good.
I believe we need to move to a more decentralized energy structure, one that is not as vulnerable to terrorist attack. I see rooftop solar—and in some cases natural gas, wind, or other things—being able to accomplish that. Imagine communities being able to decentralize. In subdivisions where people can’t put solar on their rooftop, they can have community solar, smaller wind turbines, or any other renewable energy to generate electricity for their subdivision. That’s freedom—unplugging from the centralized energy structure and monopolies that we have in this country.
CEFF: Are there particular policies or efforts that support this idea of energy freedom?
Dooley: We’re talking about deregulation, done in the right way. Look at how Texas is doing [with deregulation]. Texas is doing really well. We should start by looking at providing choice and giving consumers a choice where they purchase their electricity from. But it has to be done in the right way and with the right plan. A good stepping stone would be to allow people who have solar panels on their rooftop the ability to sell excess solar to their neighbors. Can you imagine if they had that ability? As a conservative, I feel that the power you generate on your private property belongs to you, and you should be able to sell it and make a profit for yourself.
I’m not a big fan of energy subsidies, either. But to me, it’s disingenuous when I hear folks talk about solar subsidies but they fail to point out that fossil fuels and nuclear have been very heavily subsidized by the federal government for decades. For example, in the first 50 years of nuclear, all the R&D and subsidies accounted for one percent of the federal budget. Solar doesn’t even account for one tenth of one percent.
In a perfect world, we should remove all energy subsidies across the board—both direct and indirect—and make energy forms that damage people’s health and pollute the environment totally responsible to mitigate the damage without assistance from the taxpayer. I’m not endorsing a carbon tax, but there should be a way, like a Superfund. Why should taxpayers be on the hook to clean up damage that other forms of energy are doing? The energy companies should be responsible for cleaning it up.
CEFF: Could you elaborate on this “Superfund” idea and what that would look like?
Dooley: Once you start taxing gasoline and things like that a carbon tax probably would not pass, but you can start making these companies that cause damage pay for the cleanup. Look at what happened with the BP oil spill in the Gulf, for example. I'm a Louisiana native, and they are still dealing with the cleanup of the BP oil spill. They created a cleanup fund, and BP had to pay for that.
The energy forms that pollute the environment and cause damage, including health-related damage, should be the ones that pay for it. And I think if we cut out all energy subsidies I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that renewables would be at the top because they can function without all these massive subsidies, but some of these fossil fuels and nuclear would not be able to.
CEFF: What you think about where the current national political debate stands on energy, especially proposals like the Green New Deal?
Dooley: I strongly oppose the Green New Deal because it’s not free-market—that's like green socialism. Let's look to the free market system. Let's encourage innovation and new advances in technology and battery storage instead of mandating what people should do or should not do.
When the cell phone was first invented it was like a brick. People usually couldn’t afford it and you had to charge it for just about eight hours to have one hour of talk time. They didn’t go out and start banning the landline phones. They waited until infrastructure caught up and there was a demand for cell phones. There was a lot of innovation that took place on the free market and that's why we walk around with these small, handheld mini-computers we have today.
You can look at what happened with France, what they did when they raised the prices of gasoline. They kind of instituted their own version of a carbon tax, and look at the riots and everything that took place. You don't want that. I believe that free markets are the solution to that. Not green socialism.
CEFF: Knowing that the political climate is very divided right now when it comes to energy and the environment, what do you think are the best ways to build bipartisan consensus for policy on clean energy?
Dooley: Renewables, especially solar, poll very well among conservatives. Let's start on low-hanging fruit. Let's start on areas we can agree on, okay? Let's start by advancing renewables because of national security. I'm a strong, strong believer that moving to renewables and a more decentralized energy structure is in our nation's national security interest, because our power is so centralized now that it's more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Imagine the catastrophic effects if terrorists can identify the nine key substations out of more than 54,000 in this country. There’s nine key substations they would have to take down.
Let's start talking about choice and freedom and job creation. Look how many jobs the solar and renewable energy industries create. Let's talk about empowering the individual with the ability to sell excess power to their neighbors. Let's talk about removing all energy subsidies even though I think you will find pushback from the Republicans on that, and Democrats. Let's focus on what we agree on and start to implement those policies instead of focusing on what our disagreements are.
It's all about the message, and in red states solar is doing fine—it’s going gangbusters—and it's because Republicans like Bubba McDonald are leading the way. He’s on the Georgia Public Service Commission and he's a very strong solar proponent. Solar has become incredibly popular in Georgia, because people see it as an alternative to expensive energy like building nuclear reactors at Vogtle. That's what you talk about. You have talking points and messages that appeal to both sides of the political spectrum.
CEFF: There are some estimates that the average homeowner spends less than 10 minutes a year looking at their utility bill, and that many folks don't necessarily understand all the details—like the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour. Considering all this complexity, what role do you think citizens need to play in shaping the energy system going forward?
Dooley: I think they need to demand more accountability from these giant monopolies. One of the things I think we need to look at and one of the things I’ve witnessed firsthand is the enormous political clout that these investor-owned utilities have in different states. They have a guaranteed profit margin of 10.5 to 11 percent, and so they have a lot of money to spend. I just think there should be limits on how much they can spend on lobbying and how much they can donate to political campaigns.
CEFF: Is there anything else that we haven't covered that our readers should know?
Dooley: Understand one thing: a lot of the fight is not on the federal level, it’s on the state level.
I got involved in the energy field when Barack Obama was president, and he was very pro-renewable president, but I was fighting battles on the state level. There’s always going to be a battle on the state level for renewables no matter who the president is. Look to the state level, look at your community, because you can impact policy there.
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