Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?

Who’s behind the battle over solar power in Florida?
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If you listen to how Consumers for Smart Solar tells it, they're for the little guy – the organization claims to be a "diverse coalition of business, civic and faith-based organizations" that wants to protect people from solar power opportunists. Last week in this same space, we mentioned that the group is spending a lot of time (not to mention money) trying to take down another organization – Floridians for Solar Choice – that's pushing for a constitutional amendment that would make it legal for businesses to generate and sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power to adjacent properties.

Consumers for Smart Solar calls Floridians for Solar Choice a "shady" organization, made up of big businesses that want to take advantage of Florida's largely untapped solar market, leaving consumers to pick up the tab for the costs of maintaining the power grid – a characterization that Floridians for Solar Choice says is inaccurate, misleading and intentionally confusing.

"It's the oldest political ploy in the book," says Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization behind Floridians for Solar Choice. "They're trying to confuse people."

And, until you find out who's behind each organization, it is confusing. Consumers for Smart Solar has put forth its own solar-power constitutional amendment that, on its surface, seems pro-solar. It says that it gives people the "right" to use solar power in the state – something that Chuck O'Neal, first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, says is simply not necessary. "You already have the right to have solar," he says, adding that the League of Women Voters examined the two organizations and their competing amendments and is backing the one put forth by Floridians for Solar Choice.

Consumers for Smart Solar's amendment, he says, doesn't really do much of anything, and the organization exists mostly to discredit Floridians for Solar Choice. In fact, he says, the Smart Solar organization is backed not by consumer groups – rather, it's mostly backed by the state's utility companies, which have a chokehold on the industry now and will do anything to make sure that measures like the one Floridians for Solar Choice is pushing never see the light of day.

According to its critics, Consumers for Smart Solar is a front group for organizations that have an interest in fossil fuels. If you take a look at the organization's campaign-finance filings, that's not such a far-fetched notion. The most recent reports indicate that nearly $300,000 of the $799,045 Consumers for Smart Solar has raised has come straight from some of the state's biggest utility companies: Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light, Gulf Power Company and Tampa Electric.

Another $125,000 came from disgraced lobbyist Ralph Reed's Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition. Reed, you may recall, helped mobilize Christians to assist another disgraced lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced in 2006 to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, tax evasion and attempting to bribe politicians. Another $100,000 was provided by the 60 Plus Association, which receives support and funding from the Koch brothers.

The vast majority of the $759,078 pulled in by Floridians for Solar Choice, by contrast, comes primarily from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, which has pushed for energy reform since its founding. The group is tied to California billionaire environmentalist and philanthropist Tom Steyer, who challenged the Koch brothers earlier this year to a debate on climate change (they declined his invitation).

There is no phone number listed at the website of Consumers for Smart Solar. Emails sent through its website did not receive a response; one of the organization's local representatives, consultant Dick Batchelor, wasn't reached until after press time. In a recent opinion piece that ran in the Orlando Sentinel, Batchelor spells out what the Consumers for Smart Solar amendment aims to do: "Our amendment makes it a constitutional right in Florida for individuals and businesses to own or lease solar equipment to generate their own electricity," he wrote. "Under our smart solar amendment, consumers would retain the ability to sell excess electricity back to the grid."

That's exactly what you have the ability to do now, although it's not enshrined in the constitution.

So, the tale of two amendments ends like this: One organization (Floridians for Solar Choice) wants to expand solar opportunities in the state; the other (Consumers for Smart Solar) would maintain the status quo. Because opening the market, even in a small way, to businesses that want to sell solar energy to their neighbors is a direct threat to utility companies' bottom lines.

"Utilities don't want to sell people less energy," Glickman says, "any more than McDonald's wants to sell people less hamburgers."

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