They’ve been called an “unholy alliance” and “strange bedfellows,” and it’s partly true: Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party firebrand, is solar power’s most unlikely ally.
A lifetime campaign operative for the Republican Party and an organizer of the first nationwide Tea Party protests in 2009, Dooley is making some very persuasive arguments for why conservatives should support renewable energy. She’s reached across the aisle to form the Green Tea Coalition, breaking with Republican candidates she says are in the energy sector’s pocket. By teaming up with progressive groups like the Sierra Club, Dooley is taking on a utility and fighting to bring solar power to the Sunshine State.
Dooley’s reasons for selecting clean energy as her pet project may sound somewhat trite — her baby grandson became an in-the-flesh reminder of the urgent necessity of conserving the planet for future generations — but her reason for supporting solar power is fresh. Unlike liberals who tout the environmental benefits of solar’s clean technology, Dooley makes her argument based on Tea Party mainstays like free market economics and self-sufficiency.
A New Orleans native and a preacher’s daughter, Dooley’s always been involved in politics, usually of the right-wing brand. Fifty miles north of The Big Easy, her grandfather ran a popular gas station and became well-known in political circles as a “power broker,” she says. “When someone ran for political office, they always paid him a visit.” Dooley spent much of her childhood at political events, accompanying him to rallies and town hall meetings.
She got involved in her first serious campaign as a high school senior in Montgomery, Ala., staffing the phone bank and canvassing door-to-door during Ronald Reagan’s first attempt at the presidency. When she moved to Georgia at the tail end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, she became an active member of the state’s Republican party.
But it’s policy, not party, that matters to Dooley. She’s unafraid to call out politicians on both sides when they shy away from their principles. Her interest in founding the Tea Party — when the “teapot started boiling,” she says — was prompted by disappointment with President George W. Bush’s policies, particularly the Wall Street bailouts. “I began to feel like the Republican Party had lost its way. They began to be the party of big spenders,” she explains. She co-founded of the Atlanta Tea Party, and she’s still on the board of directors for the national Tea Party Patriots.
“Debbie is somebody that has a lot of integrity in the positions that she takes,” says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), a nonpartisan energy watchdog group, since 1993. “She will point out inconsistencies where there are conservatives that are on the financial take from utilities and fossil fuel companies. Debbie is an absolute watchdog on the political right when conservatives start taking positions that aren’t true to conservative values.”
In 2012, Dooley won her first victories for solar power before the Georgia Public Service Commission, the regulatory authority for the energy utility. Competition is virtually nonexistent in the utility business because there’s no need to construct multiple overlapping grids (a neighborhood only needs one set of power lines), and shakeups are rare. To ensure there’s no blackouts and that customers get a fair price, utilities are monitored — and often protected — by government. In Georgia, the state had a number of laws on the books that stifled better technology. Essentially, “If I purchase electricity, I must purchase it from this government-created monopoly,” Dooley explains. She promised that expanding access to solar would create “competition and choice,” two values that persuaded the commission to open the market.
In Florida, Dooley faces a similar battle, but against an even stronger opponent. Florida Power & Light has huge influence over legislators, killing some bills before they ever reach the floor for a debate and, along with three other utilities, spending $12 million on Florida’s legislative races since 2010. The Sunshine State is one of only five states that forces consumers to buy electricity from a utility, meaning a resident can’t install a solar array and sell the excess power to neighbors or lease panels from a solar company to reduce up-front costs. That power — Dooley calls it “corruption” — is why she’s asking voters to pass a constitutional amendment tearing down barriers to supplying local solar power. (NationSwell reached out to Florida Power & Light for comment, but did not receive a response.)
“It shall be the policy of the state to encourage and promote local small-scale solar-generated electricity production and to enhance the availability of solar power to customers,” the measure reads. “This section is intended to accomplish this purpose by limiting and preventing regulatory and economic barriers that discourage the supply of electricity generated from solar.”
In an early telephone poll of 600 registered voters in Florida (commissioned by SACE and executed by North Star Opinion Research), nearly three quarters of voters said they would support a proposal to amend the current law to allow solar companies to install panels at no up-front cost and sell the power to the resident. More than half — 54 percent — believed their average monthly electricity bill was too high.
Dooley’s “been a very strong voice from the beginning. She recognized the tremendous national significance of opening the Sunshine State to solar. There, the utilities have an absolute stranglehold on the market. It has enormous potential but it continues to underperform,” says Smith, who also serves on the board of Floridians for Solar Choice. “There’s a lot of issues that Debbie and I disagree on, but on opening markets for solar power, we’re in lockstep. There’s no daylight between our positions there.”
Her campaign has already collected over 100,000 signatures in the first five weeks, Dooley says, but it needs several hundred thousand more to qualify for the election and the Florida Supreme Court’s approval of the ballot text, which the utility has promised to challenge.
Dooley couldn’t have chosen a better proving ground to test her ideas. The fourth largest state, Florida has a huge energy market powering homes for 19.9 million residents. But unlike other massive states — California, New York and Texas — Florida is a swing state. Her proposition will likely appear on the November 2016 ballot, downticket from the race that will decide Obama’s successor. If she’s successful, the Sunshine State’s expansion of solar power would be a beacon of bipartisan unity, potentially igniting a movement across the nation.