The solar industry is closely watching a decision coming as early as Thursday from Arizona's utility commission as a potentially galvanizing moment for generating support from conservative grassroots organizations.
In Arizona, a conservative group called "Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed," or TUSK, is lobbying the Arizona Corporation Commission to shoot down a proposal from utility Arizona Public Service that would curb a solar power benefit known as "net metering."
TUSK, which has enlisted the help of Barry Goldwater Jr., the former congressman and son of the late conservative Arizona senator, is defending net metering as a way of opening up the electricity market.
"The monopoly is trying to flex its political muscle to squash what competition does exist in the form of rooftop solar," said Jason Rose, a consultant who is working with the group.
Arizona Public Service, like most electric utilities in the United States, is a regulated monopoly — it gets a dedicated customer base, but it must persuade the state's utility commission for rate increases.
Ken Johnson, spokesman with the Solar Energy Industries Association, said events like the one transpiring in Arizona have caught the trade group's attention.
"Obviously we're watching what happens in Arizona very closely, and I suspect that in the very near future we will begin ratcheting up our efforts to Tea Party groups as well as to libertarians," he said.
Net metering, a key policy for expanding the residential solar industry, refers to when a utility agrees to pay solar users for power they supply back to the electric grid.
Arizona Public Service wants to scale back those payments. It says solar power users don't pay their fair share when it comes to maintaining the grid using power during periods of solar intermittency — for example, when it's cloudy.
But solar power boosters argue those customers largely generate and use their own power, and therefore don't depend on the power grid as much as the average ratepayer. They also say the utility isn't calculating the benefits from solar, such as the additional power the utility receives through net metering.
The solar industry wants to seize on the sentiment of groups like TUSK and an Atlanta Tea Party group that recently successfully pushed electric utility Southern Company to integrate more solar power.
"At the heart of solar is the whole concept of property rights and individualism and the freedom to make choices," Johnson said. "So we're pretty confident as more people learn about solar and learn about the freedom it provides in terms of making electricity choices, we think more and more conservatives and libertarians will swing our way."
But Tom Pyle, president of the conservative Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy arm, American Energy Alliance, said those arguments are incongruent with the government subsidies that the solar industry receives.
To be sure, subsidies have helped solar prices plummet in the past two years. But other forms of energy — such as natural gas and coal — are still cheaper for generating electricity.
Pyle said his group is also watching the Arizona decision. He added that it's monitoring other states, saying it could get involved to counter groups like TUSK that campaign for solar on the grounds of market choice.
Rose argued that the monopolies awarded to utilities, which include a guaranteed profit rate, are also a subsidy. On top of that, the fossil fuel industry has earned tax breaks and incentives for decades, he said.
"The general consensus is that you have to level the playing field," Rose said.
Sensing the growing visibility of groups like TUSK — utility commissions in Louisiana and Idaho also recently shot down attempts to curtail net metering — Pyle said he has reached out to other Washington-based conservative outfits to discuss how net metering and other incentives work.
"This stuff is complicated stuff, and I think part of this is education and getting people better informed about the nuances of these issues," Pyle said. "Because obviously it's popping up in a lot of places."
Pyle said he would start with the business model for the rooftop solar industry, which largely relies on a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar systems.
Installation firms collect that incentive and get paid through the power rates homeowners agree to pay with a contract, usually for around 20 years. In exchange, the installation firms pay for, install and maintain the solar panels on each home.
On top of that, Pyle said, net metering is an incentive not afforded to other forms of power generation.
"I just think there's a lot of glossing over of the details, and it's a complicated issue," Pyle said.