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How Money in Politics Is Killing Rooftop Solar in Nevada
And Greenpeace has been chattering more than usual about it since we, along with more than 20 partners, launched a pledge asking all candidates to start fixing democracy by both rejecting campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies and protecting voting rights.
With all that chatter, it may be easy to lose sight of what is actually wrong with big money in politics. What are the real-world consequences of politicians bought by corporate money and influence? How does a cozy relationship between a governor and a lobbyist impact you and me?
Let us go to Nevada.
What Happened to Nevada’s Solar Energy Boom?
The Silver State is not only the next stop for the upcoming Republican and Democratic caucuses, following on the heels of the New Hampshire primary, it is also the site of a fierce debate around solar energy that has everything to do with money in politics.
Most people’s descriptions of Nevada include sunshine and lots of it, making it a natural place for a thriving solar market. Nevada was well on its way to becoming a national hotspot for affordable rooftop solar until a few months ago, when the ramifications of corporate influence over politics had its day in the sun.
Prior to a December decision by Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, homeowners could not only enroll in affordable solar investment for their homes, they could also sell back any energy they didn’t use to the utility NV Energy, like rollover minutes on a cell phone plan. This is called net metering and is a common practice across the country. Basically, that customer gets credit for the energy it sends back to the local grid. High fives all around!
Unfortunately, the Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission struck a big blow against rooftop solar passed in December. The commission passed a resolution that hiked up the fees for solar customers and significantly lowered the payout for the electricity solar customers contribute back to the grid. The real bummer here is that when customers signed up for a solar rebate by installing panels on their roofs, they expected the rates to stay the same for years to come. Now, the cost of installation and maintenance of rooftop solar just got significantly more expensive for customers, forcing them to pay for electricity they are producing themselves.
The solar installation industry now employs more people than oil and gas extractive industries and does so without harming human health or the health of our climate. So why would any state—particularly one as swamped with sunshine as Nevada—suddenly unleash an attack on renewable and affordable solar energy?
The cozy relationship between the governor of Nevada and the state’s utility company might have something to do with it.
And in case you’re starting to lose perspective here, affordable access to solar energy is really important right now. Those changes made such an impact that SolarCity, the major provider for the solar installations in Nevada, pulled their company out of Nevada along with 500 jobs that could have benefited the state.
If we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world needs to be done with fossil fuels by 2050. That means every state should establish easy and affordable access to rooftop solar and a place like Nevada, which enjoys nearly 300 days of sunshine, should lead the pack on solar energy.
So why the quick change?
A Governor and a Lobbyist
When following the bizarre solar attack in Nevada right now, the first question to ask is, "Who would not like booming solar in Nevada?"
The answer is a utility company and, in this case, energy monopoly NV Energy.
The rise of renewable and affordable energy is a direct threat to the utilities’ outdated business model, despite the unmistakable environmental and economic value of distributed solar energy. By putting a stop to rooftop solar, those utilities hope to protect their own bottom-line profits.
NV Energy needed to end this solar circus and thankfully the utility had a friend in the right place to help make that happen: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Gov. Sandoval’s ties to NV Energy are substantial. First, Sandoval’s two election campaigns have both received the maximum allowed donation under state law from NV Energy.
Next, two of NV Energy’s primary lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Gregory W. Ferraro, are two of the Republican governor’s closest advisers. In addition to being an executive at NV Energy’s public relations firm, Ernaut managed Sandoval’s gubernatorial campaign.
Let me repeat that last part.
The same guy who led Gov. Sandoval into office is in charge of making NV Energy look good and make a lot of money.
As governor, Sandoval then had to appoint members of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, who are in charge of regulating the state utilities and really in charge of regulating NV Energy.
And those three people, on the commission and appointed by Sandoval, voted in December to hike up rates so much that rooftop solar was no longer feasible for most homeowners, meaning NV Energy could breathe easy with a protected revenue stream at the expense of citizens.
Presidential Promises of a Fixed Democracy in Sunny Nevada
As illustrated by the case in Nevada, the ripple effects of money in politics are everywhere in this country, from the Flint water crisis in Michigan to an attack on solar energy in Nevada.
Sanders called the rate hike "just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard. We should be making it easier, not harder for people to go solar" in a December speech in Las Vegas.
Last month, Clinton spoke about the job boom from solar energy, going on to say it is “a win-win to move us away from fossil fuels, to diversify the grid, to give homeowners a chance to be empowered to do something about their own energy usage and put people to work.”
Where the candidates generally seem to agree is that money in politics is a problem. Gov. Jeb Bush called for an overturn of Citizens United earlier this week and Sen. Ted Cruz even said that big money, lobbyists and corruption are a problem in Washington.
Of course, voters want more than rhetoric from any candidate.
Each candidate has an opportunity to prove to voters right now that they are committed to fixing this rampant problem of money in politics by taking the #FixDemocracy pledge, vowing to reject fossil fuel money and support voters rights.
Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who has officially pledged to fix democracy. Who will be next?
If you’re ready to see an end to corporate influence over politics, ask this year’s candidates to sign the pledge to fix democracy.
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"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.