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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Solar power group looks to 2018 election as amendment's hopes for next year dim

17

December

The group backing a solar power constitutional amendment is all but throwing in the towel.

With a key end-of-year petition deadline fast approaching and lacking more than 400,000 petition signatures, Floridians for Solar Choice announced Thursday night that it will continue trying to qualify for the ballot in the 2016 election but it is “exploring options for 2018.”

“During the campaign, we have faced vicious opposition with a goal to stop the grassroots movement comprising the full political spectrum as well as the business community,” Tory Perfetti, the group’s chairman, said in a statement. “The monopoly utilities have succeeded in making the qualification for 2016 very difficult, but we are well positioned for 2018.”

If passed by voters, the amendment would allow people to contract with a solar energy company which would install solar panels on their roof and sell electricity. Right now, Floridians who want solar power must purchase the panels, often a large investment, which the solar choice group says makes it unappealing to many people.

In other words, it’s direct competition to utility companies.

Thursday’s announcement comes just hours after FloridaPolitics.com published a story claiming that Floridians for Solar Choice and a California-based consulting firm it has paid more than $1 million to collect signatures are in the midst of a dispute over hundreds of thousands of dollars in back payments. That, apparently, has led the firm, PCI Consulting, to withhold petitions that have already been gathered.

“Floridians for Solar Choice has over 271,000 valid signatures and another 212,000 signatures that have been collected by PCI,” the statement released by the group says. “We are actively working to resolve issues for these petitions to be released for verification.”

What, exactly, those “issues” are, they haven’t said. And PCI Consulting did not respond to Times/Herald requests for comment.

Technically, Floridians for Solar Choice isn’t giving up. Their statement makes it clear that they “continues to gather signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot.” But, under the headline “Floridians for Solar Choice coalition is exploring options for 2018 qualification,” it reads more like an end to the 2016 campaign than anything else.

Floridians for Solar Choice has been behind on signatures for months, bogged down in as an opposing campaign has raised millions of dollars to derail the group.

It takes 683,149 valid petitions — including support from 8 percent of the voters in half the state’s 27 congressional districts — to make it on the ballot. And to guarantee that signatures get counted, they have to be in the hands of local election supervisors by the beginning of January.

With the end of the year fast approaching, it would be a tough feat to gather an additional 400,000 valid petitions, especially given that many signatures are ruled invalid by supervisors of elections.

Signatures are valid for 24 months, though, and so the group is looking to the 2018 election.

The solar power fight this year has been an expensive one as Floridians for Solar Choice has squared off against Consumers for Smart Solar, a group pushing its own constitutional amendment that reaffirms existing solar energy regulations. The second group — Consumers for Smart Solar — has raised $5.9 million since July, more than any other political committee in the state, including Let’s Get to Work, which is run by Gov. Rick Scott.

Almost all that money has come from the state’s major utility companies.

Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy both funnelled more than $1 million into the campaign’s coffers. Tampa Electric Company gave $841,000 and Gulf Power $640,000, as of November.

Contrast that with Floridians for Solar Choice, which raised $1.94 million, most of it from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

But in the world of petition gathering, money talks. And the utility-backed group was reportedly raising payments to signature gatherers in an attempt to price Floridians for Solar Choice out of the game.

A spokeswoman with Consumers for Smart Solar did not reply to calls for comment Thursday evening.

With 2018 now in its sights, Floridians for Solar Choice buys itself two more years to gather signatures and raise money to compete against the utilities.

There is one other alternative: Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, has proposed a bill (HB 687) that would do much the same thing as their proposed amendment. But with just weeks until the legislative session begins, it has no Senate sponsor and has not been heard by a House committee. Sure signs that the legislation is not likely to pass.

[Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2015 7:56pm]

    

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