Revolution

09.16.13

The Green Tea Party: Debbie Dooley Battles Big Energy

Conservatives need to understand that green energy isn’t just for crunchy-granola tree huggers. Michelle Cottle on one woman’s battle for solar power and biofuels.

This Tuesday, at high noon, Debbie Dooley aims to launch a revolution on the steps of the Georgia state capitol. As national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots and co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, Dooley knows a little something about political agitation and taking on the establishment. She was in on the planning calls for the movement’s first nationwide day of protest on February 27, 2009. Since then, the Louisiana native has marched, given speeches, sat for interviews, and rallied the troops to fight the powers that be on issues ranging from taxation to Syria. Now, Dooley is amassing an army of likeminded patriots fed up with Big Government and Big Business pushing them around and looking to save America by alerting fellow conservatives to the urgent need for ... green energy?

Ask most Americans to list the policy priorities they associate with the Tea Party, and promoting solar power or biofuels won’t crack the top 50—or top 5,000. But as Dooley sees it, battling Big Energy and its government cronies who conspire to strangle competition, distort the market, and hold consumers hostage is precisely the sort of crusade that should fire up the movement. “This is about energy freedom. Energy choice!” explains Dooley. “We want to allow green energy companies to compete in the market. Let the market decide what’s best. It’s pro-consumer!”

As Dooley sees it, green energy is an issue tailor made for Tea Party types. “Conservatives need to be leading this effort!” she insists. For starters, she notes, Big Energy—especially utility monopolies like Georgia Power—have too much centralized power. Solar energy, by contrast, is highly decentralized. This not only puts more power in the hands of individuals who install their own solar cells, it opens up the possibility of allowing people to come off the power grid altogether. This has national security implications, contends Dooley, pointing to a 2007 Department of Homeland Security study examining the risks of a terrorist attack on the grid. Then there’s the matter of subsidies. “People are hypocritical when they say, “Ooooh, Solyndra. Look at the subsidies solar receives!’” says Dooley. “But they’re silent on the subsidies coal and nuclear have received since the 1940s.” Dooley’s preference: strip away all the subsidies, level the playing field, and let the market—not the government—pick winners and losers.

As is often the case, Dooley’s latest cause has local roots. Over the past few years, she has grown increasingly annoyed with Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Co. Of particular irritation was a 2009 bill allowing GP to charge customers for the financing costs of expanding Southern Co.’s nuclear power Plant Vogtle well before the new reactors were finished, followed by a 2011 bill overturning a 40-year ban on monopoly utilities contributing directly to political campaigns.

Looking to loosen GP’s stranglehold on the market, last year Dooley’s Atlanta Tea Party lobbied the state’s Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power to up the amount of power it obtains from solar. To aid in the effort, Dooley snuggled up with a somewhat surprising ally: the Sierra Club. Despite their political differences, the two organizations had previously worked together on local issues where, as Colleen Kiernan, head of Sierra’s Georgia chapter, puts it, both objected to “business as usual.” This time around, the left-right, pro-solar coalition found itself facing particularly intimidating opposition: the billionaire Koch brothers, the infamous Republican mega-donors who, as fossil-fuel titans, have committed themselves to smothering green energy. A Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, targeted the commissioners who expressed support of the tax, recalls Dooley, in addition to launching a misinformation campaign claiming that the additional solar requirement would raise rates by up to 40 percent. Dooley says AFP Georgia’s opposition didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked” by their dishonesty. “They did not hesitate to put out completely false and misleading information.”

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Debbie Dooley, of Woodstock, Georgia, speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee on a plan from House Speaker David Ralston to limit lobbyist spending, March 19, 2013, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP, David Goldman)
Big Energy—especially utility monopolies like Georgia Power—have too much centralized power.

No matter: Dooley’s team ultimately prevailed. And now the conservative crusader intends to take her fight nationwide. For the past several weeks, Dooley has been hammering out the details of the fledgling Green Tea Coalition, which describes itself as “seeking common ground across the political spectrum to empower consumers to unlock America’s full energy potential.” The Sierra Club is a partner. As is the NAACP.

But it is Dooley who is driving the train, preaching the clean-energy gospel to other Tea Party groups. She’s already put together a PowerPoint presentation laying out various conservative-focused selling points like decentralization and national security. (For good measure, she throws in relevant quotes from conservative icons such as former senator Jim DeMint and, of course, Ronald Reagan.) She has recruited volunteers to help spread the word, including one young Tea Partier looking to start up Green Tea Coalitions on college campuses. And she has been talking with like-minded conservatives in a variety of Southern states—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana—interested in joining the cause. Just recently, she found herself on a conference call with Barry Goldwater Jr., who is spearheading an even fiercer pro-solar crusade in Arizona.

At Tuesday’s rally in Atlanta, Dooley hopes to kick things into high gear. The Green Tea Coalition plans to roll out its Utility Customers’ Bill of Rights. Dooley will speak, along with state Rep. Jeff Chapman and the Sierra Club’s Seth Gunning. Better still, enthuses Dooley, documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner (“He did Food, Inc.!”) will be on hand to capture the action. Following the event, there will also be much more activity on the group’s Facebook page—more messages, more videos, more links. And Dooley will increase her travel schedule.

Though totally on board, even the Sierra Club seems taken aback by Dooley’s full-speed-ahead style. “The coalition got pushed out the door probably a little faster than we’re comfortable with,” says Kiernan. “The i’s aren’t all quite dotted and the t’s aren’t quite crossed.” And some of the group’s members are a little anxious about their new partners. “I think both of our constituencies feel a little bit of unease about this strange-bedfellows situation,” says Kiernan. “But I think we’ve figured out a way to pull together on areas of common interest and agreement.” And while the political specifics may often differ, she says, certain fundamentals remain. “We’re both up against very entrenched interests, and we’re seeking the public interest.”

Dooley recognizes that her new crusade will meet resistance at least as stiff as what Americans for Prosperity threw at her last year. She even admits to being a bit nervous about her personal safety: “I’ve begun taking private kung fu lessons once or twice a week.”

But there’s no way she’s backing down. The principles are too important, and she’s got a young grandson for whom she thoroughly intends to save the planet—a goal she believes will occur much more quickly once conservatives understand that green energy isn’t just for crunchy-granola tree huggers. “We’re making it cool for conservatives to support green energy!” Dooley cheers.

The Koch brothers should consider themselves on notice.