Dark money group steps up support for new fee on solar panels

Solar panels on the Johnson County Health and Human Services building. — photo courtesy of Janelle Rettig

Update: Late Monday afternoon, SF583 was approved by the Iowa Senate, 28-18. Every Democrat, except Sen. Jim Lykam of Davenport, voted against it. Three Republicans—Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale, Sen. Tom Greene of Burlington and Sen. Tim Kapucian of Keystone—joined the Democrats in opposing the bill.

The legislation still needs to pass the Iowa House of Representatives.

A dark money group has increased its efforts to support a bill (SF583) that would let utility companies impose new fees on homeowners and businesses that install solar panels. The REAL Coalition of Iowa was incorporated as a nonprofit on Jan. 23, apparently to support the House and Senate versions of the bill.

A dark money group is a nonprofit that engages in political activity but does not disclose its funders.

According to Article III of the articles of incorporation the REAL Coalition filed with the Iowa Secretary of State, “the Corporation” exists to “promote the common business interests of its members.” The next article states, “The Corporation will not have members.”

The only person named in the filing is Steven Wandros, a Des Moines attorney who is listed as the REAL Coalition’s registered agent. Wandros has said that even though his name is on the incorporation papers, another attorney at his firm actually handled the matter, and he knows almost nothing about the group, the Energy News Network reported.

The coalition is supporting SF583 and its House counterpart. The bills let utilities like the MidAmerican Energy Company — which worked closely with lawmakers in writing the proposed legislation — to impose a tariff on people and businesses who install solar panels in exchange for allowing those customers access to the energy grid.

Solar panels allow customers to generate their own power, and any surplus electricity is automatically fed into the state’s power grid. Under Iowa’s current system of “net metering,” the customer gets a credit per kilowatt-hour for the surplus energy from their utility company. As the Iowa Environmental Council noted in an analysis of net metering, customers with solar panels who generate electricity for the grid during peak hours get a credit of 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. MidAmerican sells that electricity to its other customers for 21 cents per kilowatt-hour during peak hours.

MidAmerican said in a statement that it supports the bills out of a sense of fairness. “Currently, the costs of building, operating and maintaining the electric grid are recovered through a monthly energy charge,” a Feb. 21 statement said. “Customers who own solar and generate their own energy don’t pay as much — or any — energy charge.”

The utility company estimates that its customers with solar panels are saving an average of $328 a year, compared to customers without solar panels. It wants to be able to charge customers with solar panels that amount, or a similar amount, each year.

Environmental groups, and businesses involved in the sale and installation of solar panels, oppose the bills. They contend that utilities are already extremely profitable (MidAmerican had a net revenue of $605 million in 2018), and a new tariff would discourage Iowans from installing solar panels.

The Republicans sponsoring the bills in the legislature echo MidAmerican’s position that imposing new fees is simply a matter of fairness. So does the REAL Coalition, which describes itself as “giv[ing] voice to Iowa consumers, farmers and businesses on the energy issues affecting our state.”

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

As Mark Langinn reported at Bleeding Heartland, the group has been running Facebook ads targeting Iowans since February. The group now has a telemarketing-style campaign as well.

On Sunday morning, I was called by someone hired by the REAL Coalition, who wanted my permission to send an automated message in my name to pressure Iowa City Sen. Joe Bolkcom into supporting SF583.

The woman who called was very friendly, but was clearly reading from a script. I decided to ask her a few questions to see what scripted answers she had been given. Below is a transcript of our conversation. (It’s been edited for clarity, to eliminate such things as repeated use of “um,” and the times we were speaking over each other.)

REAL Coalition: Hi. My name is Janae. Can you hear me okay?

Paul Brennan: Yes.

RC: Great. Now sir, this is not a sales call. I’m calling with the REAL Coalition of Iowa, because you shouldn’t have to pay for your neighbor’s solar panels. Let me explain. Right now when someone puts up solar panels in Iowa, 15 percent of the install costs are covered by tax incentives. But these solar panels use the local power grid and shift the cost to you, and that’s not fair.

We’re asking you to make your voice heard by encouraging Sen. Bolkcom to support Senate File 583, to make solar energy fair for all Iowans. By making solar fair for all, Paul, Senate File 583 would pave the way for even more solar energy production in Iowa.

With just a bit of information, I could send a message on your behalf to Sen. Bolkcom. It only takes a minute. Would you be willing to help send a message now?

PB: What group did you say you are with?

RC: I’m with the REAL Coalition of Iowa.

PB: I’m not sure I’ve heard of that. How long have they been around?

RC: Oh, we’ve been around for quite some time, sir.

PB: Is there a word missing? It’s the real ‘what’ coalition?

RC: No, it’s called the REAL, which is R-E-A-L.

PB: Are you a community group?

RC: Yes we are. What we’re trying to do — because we’re not against solar panels at all, Mr. Brennan — we’re just wanting them to be fair for all. Because right now, when someone puts up solar panels, they have to use the local power grid. And by them using the local power grid, the electricity grid is shifted on to you [sic], the remaining costs, and we don’t think that’s fair.

PB: But when they put up the solar panels, then they only use the electricity gridiwhen they have an excess of electricity and that electricity goes into the grid. That reduces the amount of electricity the company needs to generate, so shouldn’t that lower the overall cost for everyone?

RC: Well, you know what? Actually it does something for the people who have solar panels, but as far as you, the price shifts onto you if you don’t have them. And that’s why we’re asking you to make your voice heard to Sen. Bolkcom. So that by supporting Senate File 583, that’s what we’re trying to get him to support, that would make it fair and would actually pave the way for more solar panel energy to be put up in Iowa.

What the REAL Coalition stands for, Paul, is Reliable, Efficient and Affordable energy Leadership.

PB: Oh, I see. It’s an acronym. So, are you guys located here in Iowa City? Or in Des Moines? Or where?

RC: No, we’re in Iowa. We are the REAL Coalition of Iowa.

PB: Yeah, but what city?

RC: Well, it’s just the whole state of Iowa.

PB: Yes, but you have to have a headquarters somewhere.

RC: Well, you know, we do have a website, Paul.

At that point, I thanked her for her time and said I’d check the information on their site. The site, of course, has no information on who is funding the group.

Many solar power advocates suspect MidAmerican is a major funder of the REAL Coalition. MidAmerican issued a vaguely worded statement in response to questions about its possible involvement with the coalition.

“We are supportive of organizations that also stand for customer fairness and other smart energy policies, as the REAL Coalition does,” the statement said.

The attempt to influence Bolkcom seems to be a poor use of money, regardless of who is funding the coalition. Bolkcom has made his opposition to SF583 clear.

“Iowa’s largest utility monopoly is trying to pull the plug on Iowa’s growing solar industry by creating a new ‘sun tax,’” Bolkcom said on March 7, Radio Iowa reported. “The new sun tax will kill good jobs and make it virtually impossible for Iowa businesses, farmers [and] homeowners to continue to cost effectively invest in generating their own power.”

Debate on SF583 was scheduled to take place in the Iowa Senate on Monday.