This is the third of five installments in a series about clean energy.
Imagine you’re packing for a Florida vacation. A swimsuit, shades and a few gallons of sunscreen are probably the first things to go in your bag. If you’re driving south from Georgia to Disney World, you’ll see a big, blue sign when you hit the state line: “Welcome to Florida, the Sunshine State.”
Apparently, not everyone in Florida has gotten the memo.
The state’s chief power regulator, Art Graham, told an audience at a 2014 hearing on solar power, “I think the whole ‘Sunshine State’ is just a license plate slogan.” Graham’s not alone. For years, state lawmakers have said “intermittent cloud cover” would make solar unworkable in Florida.
And yet, Florida generates less solar energy than several far cloudier states, including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. When it comes to solar, policy is key. And there, Florida is sorely lacking.
Florida’s big electric utilities are the major sunblock. The four largest investor-owned utilities — Florida Power and Light, Gulf Power Electric, Tampa Electric Company and Duke Energy — supply power to around 75 percent of Florida ratepayers.
On your drive to Disney World, you might peer out your car window at the Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm near Epcot. You would guess the array belongs to Disney, but you would be wrong. Disney merely owns the land under the installation. Duke Energy owns and operates the array, and sells the power it generates to the resort.
Effectively, four companies control Florida’s power market, dictating how and at what price residents get their energy. Floridians generally don’t get to choose which power provider they use to run their homes.
“It’s like saying only one person gets to sell you coffee for the rest of your life all across the state of Florida,” said Tory Perfetti, chairman of the advocacy group Floridians for Solar Choice. “I don’t drink coffee, but I think that would be kind of crummy.”
Utilities in Florida also earn an unusually high return on power. They want to supply as much electricity as possible to consumers. Rooftop solar threatens their bottom line. “[Utilities] don’t want to sell less energy any more than McDonald’s wants to sell fewer hamburgers,” said Susan Glickman, Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “That’s just their business model.”
Clean energy advocates say Florida utilities wield outsized influence on state politics. Utilities rank among the largest campaign donors in Florida politics. A 2014 report from watchdog group Integrity Florida found that the state’s four utilities spent more than $12 million on lobbying between 2007 and 2013, registering at least one lobbyist for every two legislators each year during that period.
Notably, it’s Florida ratepayers who are footing the bill for utility lobbying efforts. “Everybody lobbies from every side of the aisle,” said Perfetti. “But utilities are using the money they earn from a noncompetitive market to lobby to keep that market noncompetitive.”
Utilities also enjoy an unusually close relationship with the government. The Integrity Florida report details a “revolving door” between power companies and regulators. And it finds that the Public Service Commission, including regulators like Graham, “routinely side with” utilities over consumers.
For this reason, solar was practically untouchable in Florida politics until recently. “If you were a politician trying to open up solar through the free market… you were going to have every door shut in your face legislatively,” said Perfetti. “If you were going to take a stand at all, you were going to have a pretty tough time.”
But the tide is beginning to shift. Utilities now face opposition from an unlikely source. In the spring of 2014, Perfetti and Debbie Dooley recruited Tea Party activists and influential Florida conservatives to join a new pro-solar advocacy group, Floridians for Solar Choice.
Dooley and Perfetti united libertarians and pro-business trade groups with environmental organizations. Last year, they pushed to amend the state constitution to allow Floridians to sell solar power to their neighbors.
Utilities put forward a competing amendment, known as Amendment 1, that could be used to raise fees on rooftop solar owners and block small solar farms from selling their power to consumers. The companies created an advocacy group, Consumers for Smart Solar, with funding from organizations connected to the Koch Brothers.
Consumers for Smart Solar vastly outspent Floridians for Solar Choice, and succeeded in making Amendment 1 the only solar-related option on the November ballot. Its official title, “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” led many to believe it would expand access to solar energy. In reality, it would strengthen utilities’ ironclad grip on the power grid. Those who signed the petition to put Amendment 1 on the ballot later told the Miami Herald they felt “scammed.”
While Floridians for Solar Choice failed to gathered enough signature to get their measure on the ballot, they nonetheless managed to demonstrate the broad support for solar. “The success of that effort, which created such noise and attention, put pressure and pushed the legislators” towards pro-solar policies, Glickman said.
In response to these efforts, lawmakers created a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to waive property taxes on solar panels installed on homes and businesses. Amendment 4, as it was known, passed with 73 percent of the vote in August 2016.
Amendment 1 would meet a different fate come November. The measure earned national coverage, most of it critical, and a series of gaffes plagued the campaign in its final weeks. A utility-friendly policy director was caught on tape praising the amendment’s deceptive language as “political jiu-jitsu,” while the Florida firefighter union publicly withdrew its support for the amendment days before the vote.
“We are engaged in a David vs. Goliath battle,” a retired fire captain wrote in a letter to the union chief, “and having a phony firefighter on TV ads hoodwinking the public that they should support this fraud is so repulsive to me, words do not suffice.”
Florida ultimately rejected the measure at the ballot box. “Talk about sending a message,” laughed Glickman.
Perfetti said the deceptive tactics of the anti-solar coalition were a wake-up call for voters. “I would have people call me up who don’t pay attention to normal politics, and they knew what was going on. They knew the utility industry was trying to fix and rig the game for their own profit,” said Perfetti. “You’re talking about an enshrined industry that had total dominance in a state, that was trying to pass an amendment to give them more dominance.”
Despite their resounding defeat at the ballot box, utilities have continued to undermine solar. The legislature recently authored a bill implementing Amendment 4. In the first draft, Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R) snuck in language written by Florida Power and Light. The added text would have saddled solar companies with new financial disclosure requirements, but the Miami Herald exposed the move, and legislators cut the offending language from the final version of the bill.
What’s next for solar in Florida? Advocates don’t know, but one thing is certain. Utilities won’t back down when it comes to blocking the sun. “I’m sure there will be battles coming up in the future that we can’t even predict yet,” said Perfetti. “We are not going anywhere.”
Read the rest of this series from Nexus Media.