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How The Florida Governor’s Race Could Unleash Solar Power In The Sunshine State

Florida, a state whose miles of low-lying coastline make it acutely vulnerable to rising seas, has been called “ground zero” for climate change in the U.S. It’s a term that’s stuck, becoming ingrained in the rhetoric of Florida lawmakers, political hopefuls, activists and journalists.

But now, activists from across the political spectrum are calling Florida ground zero for something else: the fight over solar power, an energy source which, if adopted widely enough, could help the state minimize its contribution to climate change. Florida ranks third in the nation for solar potential but 18th for total installed solar power capacity, a gap that, according to solar advocates, is largely due to the state’s regressive policies on renewable energy.

“Florida is the largest renewable market in the eastern United States that has no coherent energy policy,” said Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “So, we have for a long time been beating our head against an unresponsive Public Service Commission in Tallahassee and the legislature.”

The battle to get more solar-friendly policies in Florida has found a rallying point in this year’s closely-fought race between the state’s current governor, Rick Scott, and its former governor, Charlie Crist. According to many activists, the distinction between the two candidates is stark: Crist supported solar in his previous term and has pledged to support it further if elected, while Scott has done little to encourage the solar industry in Florida during his years in office and has avoided taking a firm stance on it in the race.

“The governor’s race is immensely important to pretty much everybody involved in the [solar] industry, from the utilities, to the commercial and industrial end users and potential customers, to the distributed generation installers,” Mike Antheil, director of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy (FARE) said. “The difference between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist on renewable energy is glaring.”

Corrupting The Process

Though Florida’s governor’s race has focused on other issues — even climate change — more than solar, renewable energy has worked its way into the dialogue of the race. In an October 15 debate, the candidates were asked why Florida lagged behind other states in terms of renewable energy development — why, essentially, the Sunshine State wasn’t living up to its name.

“We should be the global leader in solar energy development,” Crist answered. “My goodness, we’re the Sunshine State. It doesn’t make any sense not to do so. So you have to ask, why aren’t we doing that?”

According to Crist, the reason Florida’s solar production lags behind much of the rest of the country is partly that the state’s governor has close ties to its utilities. Over the last year, Reuters reports, Scott has accepted $1.2 million from Duke Energy, and his political action committee, Let’s Get To Work, has accepted another $1.2 million from Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility. TECO, another Florida utility, has contributed $1.15 million to Florida’s Republican Party. The utilities have donated a fraction of that — $500,000 combined — to the state’s Democratic party.

Florida’s utilities haven’t exactly been pioneers in renewable energy. Florida Power & Light unveiled a new program that asks customers for donations towards new solar projects in Florida in August, but the utility — joined by Duke and TECO — has also asked the Florida PSC for permission to drastically cut its energy efficiency programs in order to save money. And Duke Energy Florida President Alex Glenn has called Florida the “partly cloudy state,” implying that, in spite of the state’s nickname, clouds represent a barrier to getting solar off the ground in Florida.

Floridians rally outside of Duke Energy's state headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014.

Floridians rally outside of Duke Energy’s state headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014.

CREDIT: Katie Valentine

“Nobody’s holding these guys accountable,” Smith said. “We have had a breakdown in regulatory oversight, and it’s basically because of the money Duke and FP&L are pouring into Tallahassee. They’re corrupting the process. And because they’re corrupting the process, customers lose.”

But Smith said that, over the course of this year’s gubernatorial election, utilities have been “losing control of the debate” over solar. Last week, Florida residents rallied outside of Duke’s state headquarters, calling on the utility to embrace solar energy. NextGen Climate, the group led by former hedgefund manager turned climate activist Tom Steyer, has also staged protests outside of Duke Energy and has run ads in the state that claim Scott is “hiding” his connections to Duke Energy.

Smith also said that the focus on solar in this year’s election has been heartening. Though it hasn’t become a rallying point like jobs or the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, it’s been talked about, Smith said, “more than ever.”

“This has been the most activity around this issue in any election cycle in recent past, that we’re aware of,” he said.

Despite solar inching its way into the gubernatorial race’s general debate, Scott has mostly avoided taking a firm stance on the issue. When asked about solar’s role in Florida in the October 15 debate, he said he supported an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but the energy “has got to be reliable, and it has to be cost-effective.” Crist would have Florida “go the path of California,” he said, which might increase solar in the state but, according to the governor, would also drive up utility costs.

Scott unveiled a re-election plan on environmental issues in August, but the plan didn’t include mentions of renewable energy or climate change. Crist has been more direct on the issue, releasing a plan for if he’s elected governor that promises to work to develop a “thriving solar industry” in Florida.

A Nonpartisan Issue

There might be a sharp divide between Crist and Scott when it comes to views on solar, but a few conservative activists in Florida want to make it clear that developing more solar power should be, and can be, a nonpartisan issue.

Tory Perfetti, a Florida-based conservative activist, is the head of the newly-created Conservatives for Energy Freedom in Florida, a group he, along with Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley, created in October. Perfetti plans to vote for Rick Scott on November 4th, but he’s a staunch advocate of policies that would pave the way for more solar in the state of Florida.

Perfetti’s embrace of solar power stems partially from a desire to protect the earth — which he sees as God’s creation — but also from his belief that breaking down barriers and allowing Floridians to decide for themselves where they want their power to come from is in line with his conservative values.

“Solar is a tremendously growing industry right now, where entrepreneurs are creating new technologies, they’re making the current technologies better, and it’s becoming much more affordable for the general public,” he said. “And again, the free market is creating that. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be opening up alternative energy sources, and solar is one of the best ways to do that in Florida. You can’t build your own power plant but you sure as heck can have solar installed on your property.”

Conservatives for Energy Freedom is in favor of two things: first, Perfetti said, the group wants to get rid of Florida’s tax on solar, the tangible personal property tax, which makes it costly for residents and businesses to install solar that’s owned by a third party. The second goal is to make it possible for Floridians to lease solar systems.

“You can’t lease solar from a company that then charges you the rate,” Perfetti said. “That’s absolutely egregious that an individual homeowner can’t better their energy sources in the state of Florida.”

Instead, in Florida, only utilities can sell solar power — or any other type of power — to consumers.

These two general goals are shared by other solar groups and activists in Florida. Antheil from FARE wants power purchase agreements (PPA) to be legal in the state, an arrangement which would allow customers to purchase solar systems from a third party company, which in turn would maintain ownership and upkeep of the systems. The customers get the benefit of cheap, independent power, and the company that owns the system gets the tax benefits that go along with solar installation. In Florida, a state that had more than four million registered Republicans in 2012, PPAs should be a no-brainer, Antheil said.

“That small government philosophy goes hand in hand with our conservative nature in Florida,” he said. “All it says is, ‘government, get out of my way.'”

Florida also doesn’t have a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would require a certain percentage of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources like solar. When he was governor, Crist signed a into law a bill that directed Florida’s Public Service Commission to develop an RPS by 2009. But when the RPS plan was sent to the Florida legislature, it was abandoned, so the RPS was never able to get off the ground. Antheil said he’s doubtful Florida’s conservative legislature will approve an RPS anytime soon, but in the mean time, making PPAs legal would help jumpstart the state’s solar industry.

A Bright Future?

It’s not just activists who are fighting for solar in Florida. Solar companies in the state have had to struggle to adapt to Florida’s lack of solar-friendly policies, and many of them also want change. Bill Johnson, president of Florida-based solar contractor Brilliant Harvest, said the lack of PPAs in Florida drastically limits the market for people and businesses who can afford to put solar on their roofs.

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CREDIT: Katie Valentine

“Who has the capital to put up a million-dollar solar array on a big commercial rooftop? Nobody has that kind of money,” he said. “So instead, what you do is you have an outside financing company own it and operate it, and then they sell the electricity just like a utility. In Florida, you can’t do that. So that really limits the market to the folks who can afford to pay the big money upfront.”

Johnson said his business hasn’t been able to grow as quickly as it likely would have if Florida had more solar-friendly policies. Both Johnson and Jeremiah Rohr, a trainer at Solar Source, another Florida-based solar company, said the state’s politics and policies have ended up affecting their careers.

“A lot of us got into the business because it’s cool technology,” Rohr said at the solar rally in front of Duke’s Florida headquarters last week. “But we end up in politics. I mean, this is what we end up doing all the time. Much more than we want to, because I’d rather be installing.”

Solar companies are closely following this year’s gubernatorial race. Scott McIntyre, CEO of Florida-based Solar Energy Management, said that while he’s hopeful this election will change the dialogue about solar in Florida, his business will be impacted by the outcome of the race no matter what.

“It’s going to be more difficult [if Scott is re-elected],” he said. “The utilities know that, and that’s why they’re giving so much money to to Scott.”

Looking beyond Election Day, many solar advocates are hopeful for Florida’s energy future. Johnson said he knows the solar industry is going to grow in Florida; it’s not a question of if, he said, it’s a question of when, and who gets into the governor’s office will play a role in deciding how soon the solar industry can start really taking off. The attention paid to the issue in the governor’s race, however small, proves that the debate is making it to the state’s decision-makers, and the emergence of Conservatives for Energy Freedom has made it clear that there is bipartisan support for solar in the state. Perfetti joined the rally at Duke’s headquarters last week, alongside members of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and other renewable energy advocates.

“It’s very rare in politics that people can take a step back and say, ‘what’s good for the community at large?'” Perfetti said. “I think this is one of those issues.”

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