Obama Operative Joins Taxpayer-Backed Solar Company

Organizing for Action co-chair signs on with Obama donor Elon Musk’s Solar City

AP

A top official at President Barack Obama’s personal advocacy group will join a major Obama donor’s solar firm, the company announced on Wednesday.

Obama operative Jon Carson will be a top executive at pop technologist Elon Musk’s SolarCity, where he will help build a program at the company designed to incentivize the purchase of the company’s solar panels.

"The idea is to use the tactics of a grass-roots political campaign to influence consumers’ energy decisions," the Washington Post said of the strategy.

Carson will work on SolarCity’s "ambassador program," which offers customers $250 credits for recruiting additional customers.

At Organizing for Action, the activist group spinoff of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Carson helped advance the interests of SolarCity and other green energy companies by pushing for government policies that incentivized their products.

Carson reportedly stepped down as OFA’s executive director in October and assumed a new role as co-chair of the group’s advisory board. The group did not respond to questions about what Carson’s role will be at the organization going forward.

OFA promotional materials distributed at a November gathering of a secretive liberal donor club still listed him as executive director.

The materials, handed out to donors at a biannual meeting of the shadowy Democracy Alliance, touted OFA’s work in promoting policies that benefit solar companies and other green energy firms.

Going forward, the group said, it will continue to advance such policies. "Using the most successful tactics from our work, OFA will work to cement climate change as an unavoidable and central issue in the national debate in 2015," the group said.

That work includes promoting the president’s "Climate Action Plan," which calls for increased federal "investment" in green energy companies such as SolarCity.

The company has already benefitted from such investment by the Obama administration. The 2009 stimulus package converted a renewable energy tax credit into a direct cash grant program, and SolarCity scooped up nearly $100 million from the program.

It later sued the Treasury Department to release additional funds from that program, even as it applied for more federal subsidies.

Carson’s presence at SolarCity will dovetail well with a business strategy that critics of the green energy industry, and Musk in particular, say relies on currying political favors.

"SolarCity’s hiring of a key cog in Obama’s political machine is, alas, par for the course for the green energy industry," said William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute specializing in energy policy.

"Because renewables can’t compete with conventional energy, the green energy industry necessarily depends on government subsidies and mandates for survival," Yeatman said in an email.

"As a result, businesses like SolarCity must pay keen attention to politics and are quick to bring on board former government officials, political strategists, and campaign bundlers."

Musk is a high-dollar political donor. He has given to both parties, though the majority of his nearly $400,000 in contributions since 2008 has gone to Democrats. Musk heavily supported the president’s reelection effort.

SolarCity maintains an active lobbying footprint in Washington, where it employs the Podesta Group, a high-powered lobbying shop with deep ties to the Obama administration.

In the third quarter of this year, Podesta reported pushing, on SolarCity’s behalf, for legislation to extend tax credits for the solar energy industry. It also lobbied on "solar energy policy" more generally.

SolarCity’s own in-house lobbying shop was also undertaking its own push for key pieces of renewable energy legislation.

The company reported paying lobbyists $550,000 this year.