How’s this for a cognitive dissonance doozy? Despite having invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy, Google also belongs to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful corporate lobbying group that, among other things, seeks to defeat supportive renewable energy policies on the state level. Facebook, which recently installed an extensive solar power system by Cogenra on its Menlo Park campus, also belongs.
On December 6, ALEC will meet at its annual summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss rolling back greenhouse gas regulations, and perhaps charging a fee to homeowners who install solar panels on their houses.
ALEC's mission is to help mostly conservative state legislators collaborate on writing bills which they can bring back to their home states and pass, resulting in uniform conservative laws enacted at the state-level around the country (perhaps most notoriously, it's been responsible for "stand your ground" laws around the country). It's also poured money into vehemently opposing state renewable portfolio energy standards, regulations that require increased energy sourcing from renewables. This is interesting, as Google proudly states that it derives 34% of its total energy from renewables, and Facebook has pledged to power 25% of its data centers from renewables by 2015.
Earlier this year, we reported that both Google and Facebook (along with Yelp) had joined ALEC’s ranks, which Google later confirmed via its public transparency page, and Facebook through its climate czar Bill Weihl (more on that later).
Though Google and Facebook have previously denied requests for comment on their ties to ALEC, the Daily Beast reported that both were members of ALEC's communications technology task force. It's likely that Google and Facebook not only pay normal corporate membership fees, but also task force membership fees, probably in thousands of dollars. What the companies get in return is relatively cheap and unique access to thousands of legislators across the country, and direct input into ALEC's highly influential model bill-making process on technology issues. This makes sense: Companies often play both sides of the ideological spectrum; they'll take any corporate advantage where ever they can buy it. What doesn't make as much sense—because they refuse to explain it in any sort of depth—is why Google and Facebook find that access more valuable than the millions they have poured into clean energy.
We managed to get a Facebook spokesperson to speak in broad, fuzzy brushstrokes about the company's relationship to ALEC, telling Co.Exist in a statement: "Facebook belongs to various organizations representing views across the political spectrum. The private sector members of ALEC's technology committee have worked on model legislation on issues that directly affect our company including data security, privacy, and a free and open Internet. We want to be part of any conversation that contributes to shaping these issues and giving our users a better experience."
While ALEC has always pushed an anti-climate regulation agenda, the interest in punishing the owners of solar panels is a new development, as the Guardian revealed earlier this week. John Eick, ALEC’s analyst for its energy, environment and agriculture program, told the newspaper that the group would be exploring initiatives that charge homeowners a fee for distributing solar power back in the grid. "As it stands now, those direct generation customers are essentially freeriders on the system. They are not paying for the infrastructure they are using. In effect, all the other non direct generation customers are being penalized," Eick said.
"They should be paying to distribute the surplus electricity," Eick added.
The effort flies directly in the face of Google's residential solar initiatives. In 2011, Google entered a $280 million deal with SolarCity, a solar power system company, to create a fund for residential solar projects. The partnership would extend lease and purchase agreements to customers who couldn’t afford all the costs upfront. "Google is setting an example that other leading American companies can follow," said Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, announced proudly in the Solar City press release at the time.
"Now, through this partnership with SolarCity, we’re excited to be making our first investment in distributed residential solar, making it easier and more affordable for consumers across the country, including our own employees, to use renewable energy at their own homes," said Rick Needham, director of Google’s green business operations at Google, in the same release.
Neither Needham nor SolarCity responded to a request for comment over ALEC’s solar fee proposal.
The proposal also appears to contradict Facebook's green efforts. Last month, Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts, a climate activist group, asked Bill Weihl, Facebook’s manager of energy efficiency and sustainability, why the company joined ALEC. Weihl explained that Facebook also works with the likes of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, but didn’t explain the ALEC incentive. "It’s certainly not because we’re trying to oppose renewable energy legislation," Weihl told Johnson. Weihl did not respond for comment to this piece.
"It’s definitely a reputational risk for these forward-thinking online companies like Google and Facebook and Yelp to keep their membership in ALEC," Gabriel Elsner, executive director of thinktank-watchdog Energy and Policy Institute, said. "ALEC is an anti-clean energy bill mill that is creating model legislation to help its fossil fuel and utility members at the expense of ratepayers and the public."
In November, Arizona’s utility regulatory agency voted to charge solar homeowners 70 cents per kilowatt of solar energy installed on their roof a month. A spokesman from Arizona Public Service, Arizona’s largest utility, told the Arizona Capitol Times that the utility pays $10,000 in membership and specialized taskforce membership fees to ALEC. Now, the group is working on a resolution that would weaken rules allowing solar users to feed energy back into the grid and offset regular energy costs.
"The new model bills would eliminate incentives for home owners to go solar and invest in solar in their own homes, and would water down the renewable portfolio standards by opening up those policies to out of state energy sources," Elsner said.
Elsner added that these new initiatives would likely all be on the table at ALEC’s energy task force meeting with corporations and state legislators this week. If those model bills pass the committee, they go to ALEC’s board of directors, and subsequently to legislators across the country.
Google chose not to respond to requests for comment on this piece. But regardless of whether the tech giant joined ALEC primarily to rally on other issues—like, say, anti-SLAPP legislation that would protect online commenting—it's certainly supporting a platform that contradicts its own investments.
The cynical notion that joining ALEC is par for the business course is also a flimsy suggestion. Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds, Kraft, Amazon, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have all dropped relationships with ALEC in the face of its controversies (especially following the death of Trayvon Martin) over the last two years. But if Google and Facebook continue to stay on with ALEC, they owe us better logic as to why.