No one home at the REAL Coalition; MidAmerican admits to being part of 'solar tax' lobbying campaign

Iowa's largest utility MidAmerican Energy got $308 million in state and federal tax credits in 2018 for generating wind energy, then hid behind a front organization called the REAL Coalition to push legislation to add a tax on customers who install rooftop solar panels.

The utility admits it is a member of the shadowy lobbying organization. However, that's about the only thing the privately held utility – part of the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway run by Warren Buffett – will disclose about the secretive lobbying effort.

MidAmerican spokesperson Tina Hoffman refused to answer questions about the REAL Coalition, including what other organizations are part of the coalition or how much the company spent on the anti-solar lobbying.

Instead, Hoffman directs inquiries to a Des Moines attorney who filed the REAL Coalition's limited liability incorporation papers with the Iowa Secretary of State's Office.

The attorney tells callers he will pass the question on to REAL Coalition, but no response is ever received from the group. The limited liability filing with the state no longer requires public disclosure of the members or shareholders of the corporation.

And, even though the group claims to be a registered non-profit charitable 501(c) 4 corporation, the REAL Coalition does not show up in a search of the Internal Revenue Service database of such groups.

Online news site "Bleeding Heartland" obtained filings from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) which indicate the coalition spent more than $1 million on television advertising.

The TV ads – along with a heavy dose of internet advertising – sought to convince Iowa residents to contact their legislator to voice support for a "solar tax" on the bills of residential and commercial electric customers who install rooftop solar panels and sell their excess energy to the power company.

The additional charge is a "fairness" issue, argues the REAL Coalition, because such "private generators" should pay for use of the utility electric transmission system when they sell back excess energy.

The REAL Coalition claims those residential solar customers should pay $328 more for use of the electric grid, costs currently covered by all other customers.

The Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) is in the midst of a three-year study of private generation pricing/rates and how customers with rooftop solar should be compensated when they sell excess electricity they generate back to the utility.

An IUB spokesman says regulators are unaware how the $328 "solar tax" was arrived at by the REAL Coalition.

Again, the REAL Coalition did not responded to the question on how it determined the $328 figure.

For a company that reaps millions of dollars in wind energy tax credits each year and currently has only 750 residential private generation customers, MidAmerican's legislative arm-twisting appeared heavy handed.

Alliant Energy serving Dubuque and Cedar Rapids has about 3,000 rooftop solar generators on its system. It did not take a position on the "solar tax" issue and was not involved in the REAL Coalition, according to an Alliant spokesman.

So why take the residential solar issue to the state legislature rather than file a rate case to add a higher tariff (tax) on solar electricity generated by customers?

Again, no response from the REAL Coalition.

While "private generation" from residential and commercial customers is still rare in Iowa, MidAmerican's parent company Berkshire Hathaway Energy, already has seen exponential growth of rooftop solar at its subsidiary utilities out West.

The growth of such "private (solar) generators" clearly was on the minds of the Berkshire Hathaway Energy officials who recently briefed Wall Street executives at the March "Fixed Income Investors Conference."

Private generation and the "penetration rate" of rooftop solar energy installations figured prominently in the Berkshire presentation to analysts.

Berkshire subsidiary Pacificorp – serving customers in Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho and California – has nearly 50,000 private generators. In its Utah service area, 3.6 percent (33,794 customers) of Pacificorp are classified as private generators.

Another Berkshire subsidiary, NV Energy serving Nevada, counts nearly 36,000 customers (2.8 percent of its total customer base ) as having installed solar generation.

In all, Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiaries count nearly 80,000 "private generators" on its systems, or about 2 percent of their customer base.

Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) officials also think MidAmerican's success last year in pushing through a large reduction in spending for residential energy efficiency programs further encouraged the utility to seek a legislative, rather than regulatory, approach to the issue.

Whatever the reason, the result was not the same. The bill ran into significant opposition in the House and failed to come up for a vote before the legislature adjourned last month.

IEC officials, though, don't think the legislature has seen the last of "solar tax" legislation, noting the cuts to the residential energy efficiency rebate program took two years to gain approval.

IEC officials think similar legislation will resurface again next January.

By that time, the REAL Coalition may have filed its required 990 report with the IRS, disclosing exactly how much money it raised and spent in 2019.

Donors to the group, however, may never be known since current law allows individual contributors to hide their identities.

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