New TV ad targeting solar consumers creates controversy in Iowa

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) -- A TV spot is advocating for a new fee for people with Solar panels in Iowa.

The Iowa Senate this week approved the bill at the center of the ad, Senate File 583. The bill would let utility companies charge solar energy users a fee. The ad says that is because those customers do not pay to support the electrical grid.

A group called the 'REAL Coalition' is running the ad statewide.

The directs people to a website that supports the bill by arguing people with solar panels are not paying their fair share.

"Here in Iowa most of our energy comes from clean renewables," is the first claim made in the ad.

The ad does not define "energy" but the Energy Information Administration shows renewable energy use rising in Iowa as the state gets a more of its electricity from wind than any other state.

Coal is still the leading source of electricity and combined with other non-renewable sources still makes up more of Iowa's power than renewables.

"People with solar don't pay to use power lines like the rest of us," is another claim made in the ad.

This was a claim that upset Jason Gideon, owner of Energy Consultants Group In Anamosa.

Gideon says the solar panels he owns sends the extra power they harvest back on to the grid for other consumers to use.

"We're actually reducing the amount load on the grid so that way they don't have to produce more energy or put more strain on all their equipment," said Gideon.

Gideon insists he pays his fair share. To prove his point he showed us his Alliant Energy bill. While Gideon produced more electricity than he used he still paid something.

"Regardless if I'm buying electricity from them or not I still have to pay them a minimum of $13 a month to be hooked up to them," said Gideon.

What Gideon paid was Alliant's base service charge.

Charles Allen, Executive Director of the Iowa Utility Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of energy companies like Alliant and Mid-American, says the base service charge only pays for an electric meter and a connection to the grid, not for the costs of maintaining the grid itself.

"Even though they use it more, you pay their share," was the last claim made in the ad.

Allen argued that as more people use Solar, the onus for paying to maintain an electrical grid will shift more and more to those without solar panels. Gideon sees the situation differently.

"The notion of us solar people actually use more power than non-solar is ridiculous because the whole point for solar is either to slow down or to stop the flow of energy flowing into the meter," said Gideon.

It is a mystery who is behind the REAL Coalition.

The group is not registered as a Political Action Committee or lobbyist group in Iowa.

I9 was able to use the public filing with the FCC to trace it to an accountant in Iowa and a phone number to a political media group in Virginia.

That site urges support for a bill allowing utility companies to charge people with solar panels a fee to help cover the costs.

Records show the REAL Coalition formed as a non-profit in Iowa just this past January.

The agent listed on state forms is an attorney in Des Moines. I9 called him and asked who was behind the group. He would not say but did tell us he would take our contact information so his client could be in touch.
We have not heard back.

"This group is engaging in at least what we call grassroots lobbying, which is raising or providing education to the public or a segment to the public and are encouraging the public to contact their legislators about a particular piece of legislation," said Megan Tooker, Executive Director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.

I9 showed Tooker what the REAL Coalition was doing.

Tooker says the group is not registered to campaign or lobby in Iowa but she says that does not necessarily make what they are doing illegal.

"The ethics board had an advisory opinion that says that if you're only engaging in grassroots lobbying, you do not have to register as a lobbyist or a client of lobbyist," said Tooker.

As the ad is not targeting an election or ballot issue, it does not have to register as a PAC. Instead, it falls under legislative lobbying rules.

"No one had contacted me that I know of from the organization," said Republican State Senator Michael Breitbach of Strawberry Point. "I would think that our lobbying laws has something to do with actually them contacting me directly."

Breitboch was the floor manager for one of the bills the REAL Coaltion wanted passed. He tells I9 he has not seen the ad in question nor received a letter from their site.

Tooker says it would be up to state lawmakers to decide if the group is violating lobbying rules.