LOS ANGELES/BOSTON, May 15 (Reuters) - When Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party firebrand from Woodstock Georgia, makes the case for solar power, she doesn't rely on the usual environmental talking points. She speaks of property rights, national security and free market competition.
Former Republican Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr. casts his support for solar energy as a conservative stance against monopoly power utilities that "want to limit energy choice."
Dooley and Goldwater, along with the right-leaning pro-solar groups they founded, have been widely hailed in media reports as proof that conservatives are beginning to embrace renewable energy. But public records and interviews show the groups' support among conservative donors is thin, and the money behind them comes almost entirely from liberal-leaning environmental groups and the solar industry itself.
Floridians for Solar Choice, a group Dooley helped found to qualify a rooftop solar initiative for the 2016 Florida ballot, has received about 95 percent of its funding - more than $360,000 - from the Southern Alliance For Clean Energy (SACE) and its political arm the SACE Action Fund, traditional environmental groups with long records of climate change activism.
Goldwater's group, Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed (TUSK), received more than $450,000 - the bulk of its funding during a recent campaign in Arizona - from SolarCity, America's largest provider of rooftop solar installations.
The large donations have helped the renewable energy technology gain a foothold in parts of the country traditionally hostile to environmental activism. But they have come despite some significant philosophical gaps between funders and recipients.
The SACE Action Fund, for example, describes itself as "striving to make clean energy solutions to climate change a top priority." When asked by a reporter for her views on global warming, Dooley responded: "That's not something I am thinking about or taking a position on."
"You start talking about climate change and global warming and people will tune you out," she said. "But you talk about monopolies and competition and the need for security against a terrorist attack, they will listen."
The website of Goldwater's organization casts the fight for solar as a battle against the "socialist control" of the "monopoly utilities."
Some traditional environmental groups have been wary of making alliances with the new conservative groups. Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club, said that when someone in his organization first advanced the idea of working with Tea Party supporters he was skeptical.
"We have been on opposite sides with the Tea Party on so many issues," he said.
Eventually, however, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations joined forces with Dooley's groups, which also include the Green Tea Coalition and Conservatives for Energy Freedom, to promote the Florida initiative.
Dooley is hopeful that she can rally broad support among Republicans for her message. "Conservatives are very receptive to solar when the right messenger delivers the right message," she said.
But her task won't be easy. Polling by the PEW Research Center in 2014 found that while 65 percent of Americans overall support the development of wind, solar and hydrogen power, about 65 percent of conservatives oppose it.
Utilities and traditional conservative organizations, including the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council, have fought to block states from passing pro-solar bills that would make it easier for homeowners to go solar.
"That has been the challenge: to reengineer the politics of solar on the right," said Jason Rose, a spokesman for TUSK.
In this March 19, 2013 file photo, Debbie Dooley, of Woodstock, Ga., speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta. Dooley and members of the Atlanta Tea Party say they will intensify efforts to challenge Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power over its reluctance to increase solar energy use and the ballooning costs of building a nuclear power plant southeast of Augusta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
A GEORGIA VICTORY
The conservative push for solar had some of its earliest success in Georgia, where Dooley's Green Tea Coalition and others critical of utility Georgia Power's control of the electricity market first began to lobby for "energy choice."
Jason Rooks, a lobbyist for Georgia's solar industry trade group, had spent years trying to advance solar power's prospects in the state before hiring conservative communications strategist Derrick Dickey last year. Dickey helped Rooks craft a message that would connect with GOP legislators.
"I always resisted the green jobs argument, the global warming argument. All of that wasn't going to work in Georgia," said Rooks.
On his own, Dickey founded Georgians for Solar Freedom LLC, as a conservative organization backing solar. Armed with a red, white, and blue logo, it has attracted a modest following on social media, including about 300 Twitter followers and 1,700 "likes" on Facebook.
The conservative message for solar power in Georgia is also being sounded by the solar industry-funded Georgia Property Rights Council, founded in 2013 by a group of attorneys who help renewable energy developers use tax credits and other incentives.
"Folks are obviously reluctant to do things that they don't feel comfortable with, and the conservative nature of the state is such that they can understand property rights," said Lee Peterson, an attorney who serves on the board of the council.
The conservative groups all supported a Republican-written bill the governor signed earlier this week, which allows homeowners to lease solar panels from an installer rather than pay upfront for the $20,000 to $30,000 systems.
Dooley said her interest in promoting solar power began when utility ratepayers were hit with bills for cost-overruns at Georgia Power's new nuclear power plants.
Her advocacy for solar in Georgia attracted the attention of SACE, and together they launched Floridians for Solar Choice to promote the Florida ballot initiative, which would allow homeowners to sell power produced from their rooftop panels.
"There are messages that conservatives can deliver much better than folks from the environmental community can," said Stephen Smith, executive director of both SACE and the SACE Action Fund.
SACE's top donor is the Energy Foundation, a California non-profit singled out for scrutiny by Senate Republicans in a 2014 report examining what they said was a "far-left environmental machine that undermines American free enterprise and resource security."
Dooley said the Florida initiative also has received small contributions from conservative donors, but she acknowledged that the money they've given doesn't amount to much. As of early May, a gofundme.com page put up in late 2014 for her Conservatives for Energy Freedom had gathered three donations amounting to less than $800. It has since been taken down, and Dooley says donations also came by other means.
"Grassroots conservative groups, many Tea Parties and local level groups, they don't have a lot of money," she said.
Goldwater, the son of Arizona's five-term Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, founded TUSK amid a 2013 battle between rooftop solar supporters and the Arizona Public Service utility over rates charged to customers with solar panels. The group immediately attracted the support of The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), a coalition of rooftop solar installers that includes SolarCity and Sunrun.
"We're certainly proud to be their friends on these issues," TASC co-chairman Bryan Miller said. The group has also contributed small amounts of money to Dooley's efforts, according to Miller.
Goldwater defends the funding TUSK has received from the industry saying the group needs it to effectively oppose better-funded utility lobby groups operating in the state.
"Utilities are huge giants. They've got more money than God, and they are not afraid to part with it," he said. (Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles and Richard Valdmanis in Boston. Editing by Bruce Wallace and Sue Horton.)