Climate

Opposition Is Piling On A Proposal To Increase Access To Solar Power In Florida

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN RAOUX

A ballot petition to increase access to solar power in Florida has gotten a lot of heat from groups across the state, with utilities, cities, and even black and Hispanic organizations opposing the initiative.

The petition, which was launched early this year by conservative group Floridians for Solar Choice, seeks to secure a 2016 ballot initiative that would allow Floridians to purchase solar power directly from other consumers. Right now in Florida, consumers can purchase electricity — solar or otherwise — only from utilities.

Floridians for Solar Choice filed a legal brief with the state’s Supreme Court earlier this month, and the court will review the petition and decide whether or not the language is appropriate for it to be entered on the 2016 ballot. The petition for the initiative has gotten more than 88,000 signatures so far– it’ll need more than 600,000 to get on the state’s ballot if the Supreme Court approves the language.

But despite this show of support, the initiative has gotten an almost surprising amount of flack from some Florida groups.

The most expected opposition came from the state’s largest utilities — Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co., and Gulf Power. The utilities filed a brief Friday opposing the proposed ballot initiative, saying that the initiative’s goals of eliminating barriers to solar power installation are “contrary to Florida’s comprehensively regulated system for the provision of safe, efficient electric power.”

“The initiative interferes with state and local protections and functions and disrupts funding of state and local activities,” the utilities state in the brief. “Finally, it forces voters to accept consequences they might not otherwise wish to accept in order to obtain the promised benefits of local solar providers.”

The language of the amendment also isn’t clear enough to prevent Floridians from becoming confused about what it’s promising, the utilities claim.

“The proposed amendment fails in several respects to meet basic standards that are intended to protect voters from being misled or confused,” state utility Florida Power and Light (FPL) said in a statement. “Indeed, the amendment’s language is largely unclear, but one thing is certain: It would amount to an unprecedented constitutional ban on consumer protection.”

The utilities weren’t the only ones taking issue with the proposed ballot initiative. The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce filed an opposition brief against it, saying it was “greatly concerned that the current ballot language does not inform the voter of the price increases to their electrical bill that would occur if the solar amendment is approved.” The state’s Attorney General Pat Bondi joined, saying in a statement that the proposal “will leave voters uninformed and consumers vulnerable.” And the Florida Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women (NCBW) said the initiative would “have a recurring detrimental financial impact on black women, their families and communities in particular.”

Tory Perfetti, founder of Floridians for Solar Choice, told ThinkProgress that he wasn’t surprised by the opposition.

“When you upset the status quo, you’re going to have of course the utility industry fight back and use allies of their’s or other individuals who have associations,” he said. “I was not surprised on any of those groups. We look forward to having a continual dialogue in Florida to show that opening up the energy market will do what has been happening in other states, which is give benefits to people from all income levels.”

Florida Power and Light noted in a statement that it’s not opposed to the expansion of solar in Florida, and that the state “should continue to advance clean energy affordably and responsibly.” But pro-solar groups in the state have been speaking out against the utilities in recent years. Renewable energy groups were dismayed last year when the state’s Public Service Commission cut the energy efficiency goals of utility companies by more than 90 percent, a move that was based off of proposals from Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric, and FPL.

Solar groups also claim that part of the reason Florida, with its abundant sunshine, lags behind other states in installed solar power is because the utilities haven’t done enough to embrace it, and because their position as the only entities in the state that can sell electricity to customers makes it hard for solar to take off.

That’s something that FPL disagrees with. “FPL has a strong record of both delivering energy-efficiency programs for customers and advancing solar energy in Florida,” Mark Bubriski, director of public affairs for FPL, said in a December email to ThinkProgress. “We love solar energy, and we, along with our customers, believe solar should play an increasing role in Florida’s energy mix in the years ahead. That’s why we’re working on multiple ways to help make that happen.”

Perfetti said there was “no truth whatsoever” to the claims that the proposal would increase rates for solar customers. And according to some, the claim that increased access to solar power would be a financial burden to poor communities may have been pushed by utilities.

“It appears evident that this ‘solar hurts the poor’ strategy has been coordinated by Duke (Energy) and its cohorts in the corporate electric power industry and used in many states recently,” Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor of a mostly African-American church in North Carolina, told the Tampa Bay Times.

The city of Coral Gables has also joined the fight against the solar initiative, but for different reasons altogether: it wants to ensure that, if the proposal passes, it can still “use aesthetics as a zoning tool.” In other words, it wants to be able to reject a solar installation if it doesn’t fit with the general look of a certain area.

Perfetti is still hopeful that the initiative will make it on the ballot, and cited growing support for the initiative from Florida groups — including Florida League of Women Voters — as reason to be optimistic. The Supreme Court will hear arguments about the initiative in early September.