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Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017
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Utilities using devious tactics to prevent solar choice initiative

What’s holding back the expansion of solar power in the Sunshine State? It isn’t lack of interest or demand. It’s no longer cost prohibitive — the cost of installing solar panels on the average home has plummeted 70 percent since 1998.

In fact the average global price of generating electricity from sunshine dropped from $76.67 a watt to a mere 60 cents a watt over 38 years.

Since it’s not demand or cost or a lack of sunshine, what is it?

Despite all the political demagoguery bemoaning the government’s addiction to business regulation, it’s these same politicians who promise to deregulate who are preventing homeowners and small mom and pop operations from being able to access the market and enjoy the benefits of solar.

Clearly, powerful special interests that enjoy a near monopoly on our electric utilities don’t want to lose any market share, nor do they want easier access to the market — you know, competition.

With Florida’s regulatory structure, access to the market is sufficiently blocked. With the political environment, energy policy to advance renewables at the state Legislature is dead on arrival. With industry-friendly appointments to the Public Service Commission, consumer protection is rare.

The Florida Legislature, through a simple change in statute, could remove obstacles to free enterprise and promote good environmental protections by making it easier for Floridians to switch to clean, renewable energy.

Law defines anyone who sells — or even gives away — electricity as a utility. Florida is one of only four states with a prohibition forbidding the direct sale of electricity from anyone other than a regulated utility.

A citizens group devoted to increasing solar production started a petition drive to change that. The group, called Floridians for Solar Choice, has collected 100,000 of the 683,000 voter signatures necessary to trigger state Supreme Court review of a constitutional amendment language for clarity. The court review is scheduled for Sept. 1.

If it passes that hurdle, the group must gather nearly 600,000 additional petitions by February to appear on the November 2016 ballot. To do that, members must raise money and hire paid petition gatherers to supplement the efforts of volunteers collecting signatures.

Did I mention that this is not a deep-pocketed group of special interests? In fact, it’s a rather diverse group of supporters. Joining environmentalists and scientists are the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation, the League of Women Voters, the Christian Coalition, the Libertarian Party and the Tea Party Network.

If it makes it to the ballot, it requires 60 percent of the vote to pass.

Rather than openly opposing the solar effort, opponents instead created a rival group, Consumers for Smart Solar, whose goal is to confuse and obfuscate the legitimate solar effort.

It’s not a new trick. It was tried and failed in 2010 when courts threw out an obvious effort to thwart the Fair District amendments.

This competing “solar” amendment would simply reinforce the status quo in a way that would seem to guarantee a right to solar power — while denying the ability of folks to buy solar energy from anyone other than a monopoly utility.

Their moniker, “Consumers for Smart Solar,” involves neither consumers nor anything remotely smart if you support solar. Instead, it’s the industry’s well-financed campaign to defeat the true solar initiative offered by Floridians for Solar Choice.

Some tactics they might employ include tying up all the paid petition gatherers with noncompete clauses and paying them more than the little guys can afford.

They also might spend big on an ad campaign to confuse voters into thinking their initiative does something other than preserving the status quo to protect their monopoly.

Is it illegal to attempt this? No.

Is it immoral? Not really. Corporations have a responsibility to look out for their shareholders. So I won’t pass judgment on their effort to protect their financial interests even if it’s not what’s best for Florida and its citizens.

But as an unabashed supporter of increasing solar production in the Sunshine State, I do question their devious tactics and believe Floridians deserve to know who is behind each effort and what their true intentions are.

For the three out of four Floridians who want more solar power, you will want to support the initiative by Floridians for Solar Choice and avoid inadvertently helping the industry effort cynically selling itself as “Consumers for Smart Solar.”

If asked to sign their misleading petition, just say, “Sorry. I’m smarter than that. I want a real choice.”

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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