Green Tea Coalition points to fundamental shifts

By Tom Baxter

Last week’s capitol-steps pep rally for the Green Tea Coalition, a left-right, pro-solar alliance which has its roots in Rep. Jeff Chapman’s unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill limiting profits on cost overruns at the two new nuclear reactors being built by Georgia Power at Plant Vogtle, was one of several related and equally curious developments across the region this year.

Last month, with little advance notice, the Alabama Public Service Commission voted for what was described as the largest reduction in Alabama Power Co.’s allowed rate of return in 25 years.

“Even though the Company’s current return — considering all of the interactive component parts — has been shown to be reasonable, it is clear that many customers are struggling as the Alabama economy continues to recover from the recession,” the PSC order, passed on a 2-1 vote, said.

Since then a lot of questions have been raised, and Alabama Power has basically said that nobody’s rates are going to go down any time soon.  But the mere fact that the Alabama PSC went through the motions of a rate reduction was a reflection of the political heat generated by the lone dissenting vote on the panel, Commissioner Terry Dunn, who had pressed to have testimony taken under oath in the hearings preceding the vote.

Even though it’s being fought out as a battle of personalities, the cleavage on the Alabama PSC is similar to the great divide among conservatives over the Green Tea Coalition here in Georgia. One more state over, the loose coalition which has sprung up in opposition to Mississippi Power’s coal gassification plant in Kemper County, Miss. — for which the utility is seeking a 22-percent rate increase  — bears a lot of similarity to the environmentalists and conservative activists who make up the Green Tea Coalition.

Moving underneath the surface of these events are a couple of large tectonic plates. One is the reconfiguration of anti-establishment sentiment, left and right, around issues such as last year’s transportation referendum, Georgia Power’s resistance to the expansion of solar power production and the coal plant in Mississippi.

The other is the fundamental shift in the economies undergirding electric utilities that was summarized in a report published earlier this year by the Edison Electric Institute, an industry think tank, titled “Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business.”

It describes the falling cost of solar, wind and other alternative energy sources as part of a cluster of factors which have the potential to disrupt the electric utility model in much the same way the old telephone business was shattered by deregulation. You can see that in the controversy in Alabama, where alternative energy isn’t at the center of the argument, but a lot of the same divisions are apparent.

The ripple effect of these developments on conservative politics can be felt all the way to Australia.  Here, too, there are some disruptive challenges. Conservatives across the globe have sided with electric utilities on a lot of issues concerning global warming and air pollution standards, but the issues raised by more affordable alternative energy sources add a new wrinkle to the old establishment-populist divide that flairs from time to time on the right.

It’s intriguing to think what could happen if the coalitions which are forming around these issues begin coordinating with each other across state lines. Tea Party Patriots organizer Debbie Dooley said last week that members of the Green Tea Coalition have already begun conversations with Barry Goldwater Jr., who has organized a group to fight the power company over solar issues in Arizona, as well as like-minded activists in South and North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana.

“We’re hoping this will be the next movement that will take hold of the United States,” Dooley said.
She pointed to the joining of conservatives and liberals in opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria as another example of a new realignment.

“If we can have this much agreement, how many other issues are there where this will happen?” Dooley asked last week.

How many more issues there are that can bring social conservatives, libertarians and environmentalists together remains to be seen, but clearly the ground is moving. The current fight between House and Senate Republicans, sharp as it is, is really only over tactics. The reconfiguration of interests at the statewide level looks likes something much more fundamental.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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