Tea Partiers and Progressives Unite Against 'Deceptive' Florida Ballot Initiative

(Photo: AP/The Tampa Bay Times/Chris Zuppa)

Suzanne Zeller of St. Petersburg, Florida, participates in a rally for clean energy at Williams Park, across from Duke Energy headquarters, on November 13, 2013.

An unlikely alliance of Tea Party conservatives and progressive climate advocates has come together to fight a controversial solar energy ballot initiative in Florida. Launched in 2015, the so-called “green tea” coalition that includes the Christian Coalition and the Sierra Club, are standing firm against a measure that would enshrine Florida’s anti-solar policies in the state constitution. The coalition views the amendment as a power grab by the state’s largest utility companies that could cripple the state’s nascent solar industry and undermine consumers’ ability to tap into Florida’s vast solar energy potential.  

The Florida Right to Solar Energy Choice Initiative, which heads to voters in November, would give residents “the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” The measure, known as “Amendment 1,” also mandates that “consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize” those that do.

While Amendment 1 supporters frame the initiative as a pro-solar consumer-protection measure, opponents say the language is intentionally misleading:

Despite its wording, the amendment does not actually allow consumers to lease home solar systems from a solar-power installer or developer. This financing model, also known as third-party leasing, has made solar systems more affordable for residents in many other states. Similarly, Florida residents already have the right to buy and use rooftop solar panels, and protections for energy consumers are strong.

Instead, opponents stress that the measure is designed to enshrine the existing leasing ban in the Florida Constitution in tandem with a specific prohibition against “subsidies” for solar customers. Depending on how that language is interpreted and enforced, these changes could make solar power prohibitively expensive for the average Florida consumer and more difficult in the future to change policy.

With the rapid growth of rooftop solar in recent years, major power companies in many states want to roll back the tax incentives that have played a critical role in making small-scale solar-power installations affordable for homeowners, apartment dwellers, and small businesses. But conservative Republicans and environmental advocates have joined forces against what they view as unfair market practices by large utility companies and their industry allies that have balked at the competition from small-scale solar systems.

Boasting vast and largely untapped solar energy resources, the Sunshine State’s battle over rooftop solar systems has brought conservatives and progressives together in a joint effort to promote small-scale green energy. “This is about choice and freedom,” says Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Tea Party movement who recently joined the pro-solar policy fight in Florida. “I think Ronald Reagan said it best: Being good stewards of the environment that God gave us should not be a partisan issue.”  

In 2014, Dooley helped establish Conservatives for Energy Freedom, a national group that serves as a counterweight to the large, investor-owned utilities that have opposed the growth of residential solar-energy systems. These companies operate, generate, transmit, and distribute energy with almost no competition in Florida and elsewhere. “That government-created monopoly model really conflicts with conservative values,” says Dooley. “It’s about stifling competition.”

The solution, Dooley realized, involved empowering consumers to generate their own electricity, particularly through rooftop solar systems. The group waged and won its first political battle in 2015 when Georgia passed a law that permits third-party leasing. Under the new law, consumers can now lease home sola- energy systems from installation companies and purchase the power generated by those systems at a discounted rate. This financing model allows Georgians to avoid the high upfront costs of buying a home solar system and has increased rooftop solar installations statewide.

After the Georgia battle, the group turned its attention to Florida, where utility companies had recently won a fight to gut the state’s energy efficiency and solar rebate programs. These types of changes, Dooley says, “essentially block out the sun.” The power companies’ attempts to enshrine anti-solar policies in the state constitution could cripple Florida’s solar industry, she warns.

The proposed amendment would ban “subsidies” for solar customers. Those subsides could include programs like net metering, which allows solar consumers to sell their excess power back to utilities at market rates. A net metering rate cut would make a home solar-power energy systems more expensive for most Florida homeowners.

Florida's largest power companies and conservative business groups are bankrolling a well-funded and coordinated pro–Amendment 1 effort. The Consumers for Smart Solar campaign emphasizes the need to “protect Floridians from scams and rip-offs” and “promote solar in the Sunshine State.” Since last summer, Consumers for Smart Solar has raised and spent more than $7.6 million, $2 million more than Governor Rick Scott’s re-election PAC, Let’s Get to Work, has pulled in.

Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power Company, Duke Energy, and Tampa Electric Company have contributed $4.5 million, while business groups have contributed $3.1 million. Two of those groups, the 60 Plus Association and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, have direct financial ties to Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

“Obviously solar is an emerging market in our state and I think there’s tremendous potential,” says Jim Kallinger, the Consumer for Smart Solar co-chairman. “But we have to make sure there are proper consumer protections in place.” Specifically, Kallinger says the measure aims to protect consumers from unscrupulous solar developers and installers by giving them the tools to buy and operate their own solar power systems rather than leasing them from another company.

But according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, that rhetoric is designed to confuse voters, since Florida consumers currently have the right to own and use solar panels and third-party leasing is already banned. In fact, Florida is one of just four states that outlaw third-party leasing. Moreover, the initiative does not contain any new consumer protections. “They’re trying to undermine the economics of rooftop solar,” says Smith whose group is a “green tea” ally of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. “You can see them dancing around that.”

But Kallinger says solar customers should share the costs of operating the power grid. “If you choose to use solar, and you use the grid, you have to pay for the maintenance of that grid,” he says, echoing language utility company officials have used in Michigan, Nevada, and a few other states. In the coming months, Consumers for Smart Solar plans to step up its anti-solar campaign with “Yes on 1 for the Sun” TV ads, direct mailings, and a social media push.

Yet there may be some dark clouds on the horizon for Amendment 1. A March Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey of 625 registered Florida voters found that 64 percent of those polled supported the measure, while 18 percent opposed it and another 18 percent were ‘not sure.’ Support for the measure has dropped nearly 10 percentage points since a Hill Research Associates February survey commissioned by the proponents, Consumers for Smart Solar.

Under Florida law, constitutional amendments must obtain 60 percent of the vote to pass. In recent weeks, the Tampa Bay Times, Sun Sentinel, and a handful of other Florida newspapers have expressed deep skepticism about Amendment 1, calling its language “deceptive” and “manipulative.”

Dooley, for one, is optimistic. “I don’t think it’ll pass,” she says. “Voters will be too smart.” The Florida solar campaign demonstrates how that conservatives and progressives can find common ground on energy policy. “It’s unfortunate that some of these conservative groups are willing to throw their values out the window to protect major donors,” says Dooley. “But energy freedom and choice is a message that resonates across political boundaries.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Nature Conservancy was a member of the green tea coalition in Florida, when in fact, it is not. 

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