It’s not easy being green. Especially if you can’t bring yourself to use the word.
One of the biggest surprises of the summer primary season was the victory of Christian conservative activist Tim Echols of Athens in the Republican race for a seat on the utility-regulating Public Service Commission.
Echols’ opponent in the GOP runoff was veteran state Sen. John Douglas of Social Circle, who enjoyed strong support, financial and otherwise, from members of the Legislature and two of five PSC members.
Echols’ church-based, grass-roots experience gave him some advantage. He is the founder of the nonprofit TeenPact, an organization that introduces kids — often home-schooled — to the workings of government and political campaigns.
Echols also, for a time, served as campaign manager for John Oxendine’s bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
But what may have pushed the 49-year-old father of seven over the finish line was his embrace, in a fashion, of environmentalism and consumer protectionism — two topics usually reserved for Democrats.
Echols is an advocate for increased use of solar power, which Douglas dismissed as the useless obsession of “radical environmentalists.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Echols and Douglas was a measure passed by the Legislature in 2009 that allowed Georgia Power to charge ratepayers — in advance — for costs associated with the construction of two new nuclear reactors.
Douglas, who voted for the measure in the Senate, defended the unprecedented move as a $300 million cost-saver. “I criticized it because I had a disagreement with him over what should be paid by ratepayers versus stockholders — who should have borne that cost,” Echols said.
In front of voters, Echols pointed to the 90 lobbyists that Georgia Power hired in the effort and declared that he would avoid any financial connections with industries the PSC regulates or their employees.
“At Wal-Mart they don’t allow their purchasing agents even to go to lunch with a vendor,” he said. “We should do the same thing.”
To be sure, other Republicans on the PSC have taken up a populist flag on behalf of consumers. Bobby Baker, whom Echols is attempting to replace, earned that reputation during his 17 years on the commission. So did Angela Speir, who left the PSC in 2008.
But Echols is different — in the way he has placed environmentalism and consumer protection at the center of his campaign, and the way he explains himself.
Take solar energy, for instance.
“For conservatives, it’s all about saving money. For conservative business people, it’s all about being able to make a profit. And I embrace both of those,” Echols said. “But I believe — especially with solar here in Georgia — there is a profit-making potential for entrepreneurs and individuals. And there are energy savings available to the average consumer.”
He’s having his own house, where six of those seven kids still live, measured for a six-panel sun-powered water-heating system — a $7,500 cost that would be offset by state and federal tax credits.
“Energy conservation is not just for Democrats,” he said. “Energy conservation is about improving your family’s cash flow.”
Echols’ brand of environmentalism might fall a little short in the eyes of Al Gore, the Georgia Conservancy — or his two opponents in the November contest, Democrat Keith Moffett of Macon and Libertarian Jim Sendelbach of Conyers. (Efforts to draw both candidates into this discussion were unsuccessful.)
Despite his doubts about the way Georgia Power’s two new nuclear reactors will be funded, Echols is a major fan of nuclear power in general. And he thinks an Obama administration effort to put a tax on carbon emissions would hurt Georgia and most other Southern states.
Then there are the limitations that the Republican nominee places on his own vocabulary.
“Green — I don’t say green,” Echols said. It has become a loaded word in Republican circles.
He explained that a Democrat might sign up to buy “green energy blocks” on his Georgia Power bill — paying a slightly higher cost for electricity generated from alternative sources.
“They don’t mind paying more. It’s a conscience thing,” Echols said. “I don’t buy any green energy on my bill. My bill’s already $500 a month because of these kids.”