At first glance, it might be easy to pass Debbie Dooley off as a political sideshow—a novel and energetic bundle of contradictory beliefs, topped with curly blond hair and a Bayou drawl. During the Republican primary, she wrote op-eds for Breitbart News supporting Donald Trump. She is frequently billed as one of the founders of the Tea Party, and she holds a spot on the board of the Tea Party Patriots, an organization founded to push the Republican Party closer toward its fringe on every issue from taxes to immigration.
She is also one of the country’s most effective grassroots campaigners for clean energy.
Dooley is the co-founder of Floridians for Solar Choice (F.S.C.), a coalition that has been instrumental in implementing pro-solar policies in the Sunshine State. Last August, they convinced 73 percent of voters to pass a statewide ballot initiative known as Amendment 4, which exempted solar panels from being factored into the property taxes paid by homeowners and businesses. Then, in November, F.S.C. helped defeat Amendment 1, a measure lobbied for by the state’s biggest power providers that would have restricted the use of rooftop solar panels. Energy companies and dark money donors had poured $25 million into attempts to defeat Amendment 4, and another $20 million into trying to pass Amendment 1. In both cases, Dooley took on the Koch Brothers and won.
She did it with an appreciably smaller budget than that of her opponents. She invited traditionally conservative groups like the Tea Party Network and the Florida Retail Federation to work with the liberal-leaning Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy. They invested resources in going door-to-door with Florida voters to build support for clean energy. Al Gore, who Dooley considers a friend—“even though we disagree on a lot”—told voters to reject Amendment 1 at a campaign stop for Hillary Clinton at a Miami-Dade community college.
Dooley crisscrossed the state getting voters on both sides of the aisle on board. As someone who’s against raising the minimum wage and who supports immigration restrictions, she knows which issues will push the buttons of liberals and leftists—and steers clear of them. “I’m a University of Alabama fan, and I’m from Louisiana,” she told me, referencing the infamous college football rivalry. “During the season when I visit my relatives, I don’t deliberately say anything to try and cause dissension…we’ll joke goodheartedly about it, but we try to ignore that subject.”
Renewable-energy policymaking tends to happen at the state level. Because utility coverage often falls along state lines, measures that favor solar energy do too. So even if Trump were to try going after renewables, there is only so much he could do from Washington—and plenty that statewide coalitions like Dooley’s can help pioneer outside of it. States like New York and California are obvious places for left-leaning groups to advocate for renewables these next four years; but Florida and other red states could prove a tougher nut for them to crack. With so much of the electoral map shaded red, Dooley’s approach might be able edge greens closer to bringing renewables into Trump country.
A preacher’s daughter from small-town Louisiana, Dooley has been active in conservative politics since the mid-seventies. She first got involved in clean-energy issues in the state where she now lives, Georgia, where she was one of several thousand Georgia Power customers made to foot the bill for a pair of nuclear power reactors at Plant Vogatle near the South Carolina border. Part of what spurred her interest in clean energy was the birth of her grandson, Aiden, and a concern for his future on a planet increasingly ravaged by environmental destruction. But just as big a motivator—and the one she’s much likely to name in the press—is her opposition to “state-created monopolies,” and the regulatory bureaucracy surrounding electric utilities. For her and other members of the Green Tea Coalition, as she calls her group, expanding solar isn’t about saving the planet from rising tides. It’s about energy freedom. “Progressives may talk about climate change,” she told me, “but conservatives will talk about individual liberty.”
Depending on her audience, Dooley picks and chooses which of these beliefs to lean on. Appearing on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes to discuss her fight against Georgia Power in 2013, she nodded along as Hayes described the monopoly’s dominance of the power sector. “We care about the environment,” she told Hayes, “we just believe things should be done in a conservative way. We want to give consumers a choice.” With John Stoessel on Fox Business News in 2016, she struck a different tone. “I do believe that Mr. Trump will surround himself with the brightest minds just like Ronald Reagan did. We do need entitlement reform,” Dooley told him. She bristled when Trump’s position on climate change was brought up, but remained diplomatic: “That’s something I don’t agree with him about. As far as global warming, I believe that we’re damaging the environment…I believe we should be looking to innovation, not regulation.”
The question of innovation versus regulation has provoked one of the last decade’s most heated debates among environmentalists. The Green Tea Coalition—like Al Gore, Elon Musk, and many conservative economists—consider themselves “eco-optimists.” They tend to emphasize the importance of the market: given a level playing field, clean energy will outcompete traditional fuels and drive down emissions—no regulations needed. More left-leaning greens, meanwhile, hold that while technological innovation is crucial, extractive industries need to be curbed directly via federal- and state-level policymaking in order to transition away from fossil fuels.
By contrast, Dooley predicts that solar will fail or fly based on how heavily its advocates rely on climate change in their appeals: “The message [on solar] needs to be not one on climate change, but about being good stewards of the environment God gave us.” As she points out, the nature of solar power also makes it an easy fit for her brand of small government conservatism. Unlike traditional fuels such as oil and gas—which are dependent on centralized extraction, refining, and distribution processes—solar can enable homeowners to go almost entirely off the grid.
Tory Perfetti is one of Dooley’s recruits to the renewables cause, and now serves as the chairman of F.S.C. and Director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. He’s the former chairman of Pinellas County’s Chamber of Commerce and, like Dooley, a lifelong conservative. “Being a competitive, free-market capitalist,” he said, predisposed him to wanting to take on the state’s big power providers and their campaign against rooftop solar. “I didn’t own solar then and I don’t own solar now. I don’t drink coffee, either. However, I don’t think it’s okay that Starbucks would be a monopoly, and the only business allowed to sell coffee.”
A similar ethic has informed both his and Dooley’s enthusiasm for Trump, despite the president’s embrace of Goldman Sachs executives—a number of whom have found their way into top White House posts. “I think the cabinet is a very good cabinet,” Dooley told me when asked about the preponderance of corporate veterans that Trump has appointed. “And they’re outsiders.” Even picks like longtime ExxonMobil CEO-come-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are acceptable to her. “You can be pro-coal and pro-fossil fuels and still like renewable energy,” she said. “They’re not mutually exclusive…I think we’ll see solar and clean energy flourish under a Trump Administration.”
That renewable energy and fossil fuels can peaceably coexist is an image that oil and gas companies are eager to feed. Exxon was one of six major oil companies to support a carbon tax in advance of the Paris Climate Agreement, and several have promoted their paltry investments in renewable fuels as a sign that America really can have it all when it comes to its energy landscape.
Recent studies suggest otherwise. Oil Change International found last year that some 75 percent of known fossil-fuel reserves need to stay buried in order to prevent catastrophic levels of warming. And, according to power-grid experts, being able to scale solar energy up to the point where it can replace traditional fuel sources also means that it can’t be restricted to rooftops alone; utility companies and the electric grid they maintain will have to be involved.
Still, Florida’s unlikely alliance of climate hawks and Tea Partiers shouldn’t be written off. The climate clock makes relating to clean energy as an exclusively Blue state phenomenon increasingly dangerous. As it has in Florida, monopolistic and fossil fueled utilities might turn out to be a foe vile enough to unite voters behind a vision for a clean energy future. For her part, Dooley doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Neither, however, does unbridled extraction.
“Capitalism and the free market is a natural fit for solar,” Dooley contends, “the government needs to get out of the way.”