When you think of the Tea Party, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t renewable energy. Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots and founder of the Green Tea Coalition, is out to change that. She’s shaking up politics — and politicians — from the Deep South to D.C. with calls for “energy freedom” and more distributed solar power. Ensia recently caught up with Dooley at her home outside Atlanta.
How did you first become interested in energy policy?
I’ve been an activist off and on within the political process since 1976, and I am one of the 22 founders of the Tea Party movement started in 2009. I started investigating Georgia Power’s policies in regards to the two nuclear reactors they’re building at Plant Vogtle. I did my own research. I didn’t listen to talking points from other sides. And I came to the conclusion that solar and decentralized energy was something that we really needed to push for and develop because the average person could not go out and build a new power plant, but they can put solar panels on their rooftop. They could have some degree of energy choice and freedom.
What’s one thing Republicans or Democrats get wrong when they talk about the Green Tea Coalition?
Well, it’s been said that we’re tree huggers. It’s totally ridiculous. We are the conservation arm of the Tea Party.
A lot of times, in the political arena, when a group or special interest can’t discredit your message, they go after the messenger saying you’re “radical” or “extreme.” This happens all the time.
Conservatives are very, very receptive to a free market choice for energy because of international security issues. So conservatives need to speak up and lead the way for decentralized energy.
Now that the Republicans have taken control of the Senate our voice is more important than ever to make sure that we keep advancing solar. So we let our elected officials know that the current energy system is protecting a monopoly and not abiding by free market principles.
You visited Florida before the elections this fall to stump for candidates who were supporting solar energy. Why did you come under attack for this?
I believe you have to really follow the money. It’s perfectly natural that if you’re a big business and you’re in a big industry, you’re going to pull out all of the stops to protect that industry from competition. You have a lot of conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity or American Legislative Exchange that are backed by big corporations that have interests in fossil fuels. You also have elected officials that are backed by these giant utility monopolies.
I have spoken in Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere, and I can tell you that there are a lot of Republican elected officials that agree with our free market message of energy freedom and choice in advancing solar. But they know that if they go out on a limb and advocate for these important policies, and advocate for the position that they truly believe in, they’re going to be attacked from the Right. So that’s something elected officials are afraid of.
What’s the goal of your coalition?
What I want to do is to build an infrastructure, so to speak, in these states that provides cover for these elected officials when a conservative group attacks them. I think fear is why you have so many [politicians] that are sitting on the sidelines and not speaking out. I’m hoping to change that.
Why do you think you’ll be successful?
I think it’s hard for Republicans to go against a free-market, energy-freedom message in regards to solar and other energy. It’s extremely difficult for them to oppose.
Where do you stand on the Keystone pipeline debate?
I actually support Keystone, so that’s where some of my environmental friends and I sometimes part ways. I don’t know of any conservatives that don’t support the Keystone pipeline.
Oftentimes renewable energy gets lumped into conversations about climate change. Is that a mistake? Does it prevent further support of renewable energy among conservatives?
Well, I’m a preacher’s kid. My dad’s a retired minister and he used to always say, “You’ve got to get them into church in order to get them to listen to your message.” The same thing is true with Republicans and conservatives in regard to energy. If you start off the conversation by saying, “We need to have solar because of climate change,” they’re not going to pay any attention. They’re going to completely tune you out and they’re not going to pay a bit of attention to what you’re saying next.
But if you say, “Hey, this is a way to provide competition, it’s clean energy, it’s good for the environment, it empowers the consumer and it’s an international security issue,” then they listen. There’s nothing more centralized in our nation than our power grid. Terrorists would only have to hit 19 substations and they would cause a blackout from coast to coast. And when you talk to conservatives in those terms, with that message, they’re receptive.
What about subsidies for renewable energy. Is that a sticking point?
One thing I found is that conservatives have been brainwashed to some extent about subsidies for solar and all that. But then I share with them the facts, figures and documentation showing subsidies for oil, gas and coal. Over 90 percent of the conservatives that I’ve spoken to were not aware that other energy forms were still being subsidized. So once they find that out, they’re like, “Wow, we need to cut all of them out.”
You can’t subsidize one energy form and not subsidize all of it because that’s the government picking winners and losers. Republicans identify with the free market message and I’ve spoken to a lot of progressives that get it and they identify with the free market message, too.
Why do you think discussions of energy or environment have become so politicized?
You go back and people don’t see Ronald Reagan as an environmentalist president. He wasn’t. He was a conservationist. He also didn’t like regulations but he signed the Montreal Protocol — which actually banned fluorocarbons because it was damaging our ozone layer.
Being good stewards of our natural resources is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue. We’re all Americans, so we need to stop letting ourselves be divided in taking care of our environment.
What’s your hope for the future?
What I would like to see in the future is people moving to clean energy and actually coming together for the environment. I would like to see innovation in technology take place so people can generate their own power for their own homes. I would like to see true energy freedom take hold in our nation.
I have a grandson that will be six and when he’s grown up and in college and on his own, I would love for him to be able to say, “I don’t care about power bills or anything because the sun never sees a rate increase.” To be able to be totally self-sufficient and power his own home and actually live in a clean world where he doesn’t have to worry about dirty air, dirty water or a dirty environment. That’s my hope for the future.