ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – Florida residents rallied outside Duke Energy’s St. Petersburg office Wednesday, calling on the utility and Florida lawmakers to embrace solar energy.
The rally was organized by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and drew an estimated 150 to 200 people — a number which, according to the Tampa Bay Times, made the protest one of the largest to date against Duke Energy and its failure to support solar power while charging its customers for new nuclear plants. The rally was part of a larger push by environmental, conservative, and other pro-renewable energy groups to get Florida to adopt policies that will make it easier for Florida residents and businesses to take advantage of Florida’s ample sun.
Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told ThinkProgress that though the rally was partially aimed at elevating the role solar is playing in the governor’s election — something the group has been working to do since the race started — it was also aimed at getting the word out to Duke and lawmakers across the state that residents want more choices in where their energy comes from.
“I think across the political spectrum, people are taking notice, that there’s something wrong in Florida,” he said. “Why are we the Sunshine State and we’re falling behind in solar? Why are other states giving customers options for energy efficiency and Florida proposing is rolling them back?”
CREDIT: Katie Valentine
Florida ranks third in the nation for solar potential but 18th for total installed solar power capacity. Smith — along with many other renewable energy advocates — says that’s partly because the state hasn’t adopted policies that are conducive to solar. Florida has no renewable portfolio standard, a policy that would require a certain amount of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources, and it also doesn’t allow solar leasing or power purchase agreements, which would allow a third party to sell solar systems to residents and businesses.
Those policies are frustrating for Smith, who said that, in the last quarter of last year, Georgia installed more solar than Florida installed in the last three years of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. But he said this year’s governor’s race, which could, depending on the outcome, spell change for Florida’s solar industry, is pretty cut and dry. The fact that both Scott and his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race have both been governor of Florida before — Crist served as a Republican governor from 2007 — 2011 before switching parties — makes it easy to see where each candidate stands on the issue, even though Scott has mostly stayed quiet about his plans for solar during the race so far.
“We’ve seen that [Rick Scott’s] administration has done nothing to support solar power,” he said. “The public service commission under his watch has been very hostile and critical of solar power.”
Crist, on the other hand, has released a plan for what he plans to do for solar power in Florida if he’s elected governor, steps that include working to allow power purchase agreements in the state. Smith said that, despite the “stark differences” between the two candidates, he thinks solar power in Florida can appeal to both liberals and conservatives, and hopes that the issue can become more non-partisan in the state. Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist who has campaigned to get more solar access in Georgia and other states, is also starting to target Florida, a state that she calls “ground zero” for solar.
“Florida is known as the Sunshine State, but with their policies, they’re effectively blocking the sun,” she said. She travelled to Florida to attend the rally and also to meet with local and state lawmakers to talk to them about the need to enact policies to encourage solar production in the state.
Lynn Timberlake, who owns the Cay Point Villa resort in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, traveled to the rally because she said she wishes she were able to install solar at her resort. She said she looked into the possibility of a solar system on her business recently, but ultimately decided it was too expensive.
“There are no incentives, no discounts,” she said. “It ends up coming out of my pocket, and that’s draining.”
Political pressure for more solar- and climate-friendly policies has been ramping up as this year’s gubernatorial election draws closer. Earlier this month, Florida residents delivered a 92,000-signature petition to Gov. Rick Scott’s office, urging the governor to make a plan to cut emissions in the state. And in August, Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, delivered a 60,000-signature petition that urged the governor to take climate change seriously.