Who Owns the Sun?

Utility companies promote laws that seek to prevent rooftop solar systems.


FOR SOMETHING as simple as sunlight, the solar energy industry can be a bit complicated. But that never stopped pastor Brian Flory from trying to see the light.

“Putting solar panels on the roof of our congregation was important to us,” said Flory, who runs the Beacon Heights Church of Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind. “For us it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to live out the values that our faith was leading us toward.”

To live out one of the core values of his faith—being good stewards of God’s creation—Flory began the process of installing panels on his church’s roof in 2014. He’d barely raised the needed $20,000 to support the project when a bill in the Indiana state legislature nearly stopped him in his tracks.

House Bill 1320, introduced in January 2015 by Republican Rep. Eric Koch was intended to severely disincentivize individuals in Indiana from installing solar panels on their homes, businesses, and churches. If it was signed into law, Flory said, his whole project would be doomed.

The Indiana bill is not the only one of its kind. It is part of an ongoing effort across the country by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, the influential right­wing group has pushed bills like this in multiple states: Utah, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona, to name a few. Their goal, ultimately, is to make sure the rapid growth of rooftop solar does not cut into electrical utilities’ profits, in which many of ALEC’s members are heavily invested.

These bills all run on a variation of what the Indiana bill sought to do. Under it, solar customers who want to sell the excess power they generate back to the electrical grid would receive substantially less money than before—as much as 60 to 70 percent less. In addition, power utilities would be allowed to add a fixed monthly charge to solar users’ bills, as well as added interconnection fees.

In short, this means that customers who want to generate their own power from the sun would have to pay a whole lot more to do it.

These efforts have had a unique impact on the faith community. Flory said he felt it was an attack on his congregation’s religious liberty—that is, their ability to carry out what they see as God’s will to not only preserve creation, but to make sure they weren’t contributing to climate change, which affects the most vulnerable and marginalized of society.

“By introducing these questions—by putting a degree of economic uncertainty for what we were going to be doing—this was putting a real question into our ability to exercise our faith values,” he said. “We are a church that believes strongly in the stewardship of God’s creation.”

Fortunately for Flory and his congregation, House Bill 1320 was pulled from the legislature’s calendar after a wave of outrage—some of which came from Flory himself. Partnering with the faith­based climate advocacy group Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, Flory testified in front of the state legislature to oppose the bill, saying he believed the effort “punishes congregations like ours for good and faithful behavior.”

It is likely that the bill or something like it will come back to the Hoosier State despite Flory’s and other faith leaders’ objections. In the meantime, though, Flory says he’s getting those panels on his church.

“The cost of solar panels is coming down dramatically,” he said. “We’re full steam ahead.”

Originally published on sojo.net

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