Trigaux: Political war over who will control Florida's solar power escalates

Solar panels absorb the sun's rays as a source of energy for generating electricity and heating. This summer the solar-vs.-utility conflict has centered on dueling proposals seeking voters to back solar-related constitutional amendments in Florida. SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times
Solar panels absorb the sun's rays as a source of energy for generating electricity and heating. This summer the solar-vs.-utility conflict has centered on dueling proposals seeking voters to back solar-related constitutional amendments in Florida.SKIP O'ROURKE | Times
Published August 14 2015
Updated August 15 2015

Florida's solar power battles — a war pitting an under-utilized solar industry against a politically dominant group of large electric utility monopolies — continue to escalate.

Most of the recent fight focuses on opposing constitutional amendments that voters may be forced to choose between. Now a solar advocate is trying to spark support on another front with a call to end Florida's "early cost recovery." The much-maligned measure, approved by state legislators with little debate in 2006, has allowed big power companies in Florida to avoid the risks of borrowing money and instead charge its ratepayers in advance to pay for the bulk of nuclear power projects.

That absurd empowerment was lovingly tapped by Duke Energy to cover billions of dollars spent on a proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County that it later shelved. That lack of accountability has angered Florida customers who, saddled with Duke's higher bills, have received nothing in return.

Debbie Dooley, a Georgia tea party leader and a founder of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, helped launch the drive in Florida to advance solar power. She argues it "is time to repeal that early cost recovery law." Her call to action appears in a letter dated Aug. 13 that Dooley says she sent to several Florida groups, including the Faith and Freedom Coalition, 60 Plus, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Forcing utility customers to pay in advance for the cost of construction of new nuclear power plants "absolves stockholders of electric monopolies like FPL (Florida Power & Light) and Duke Energy of any risk and puts the risk of such investment squarely on the shoulders of the utility customers," Dooley writes. The letter is also signed by Tory Perfetti, head of Conservatives for Energy Freedom in Florida.

"Duke Energy customers are being required to subsidize Duke Energy's bad decisions and it has hit families and those on fixed incomes, like the poor and elderly, the hardest," the letter states. Dooley asks for the groups, which have claimed an interest in protecting vulnerable Floridians from spikes in energy prices, to support a repeal.

On Tuesday, the Florida Public Service Commission is scheduled to review the nuclear cost recovery issue in a hearing. If history is our guide, the PSC will likely rubber-stamp what Duke and FPL desire, despite critical testimony from various groups.

"Early cost recovery is a gold mine for the very powerful and rich monopolies but unfortunately it is the utility customers that often get the shaft," Dooley's letter reminds all of us.

Will her appeal work? Earlier attempts to do away with early cost recovery have won little traction in Tallahassee, where legions of utility lobbyists and their political cash seem all powerful. At the least, Dooley's letter seeks to broaden the argument that the current monopolies enjoy a track record of gouging Floridians that now includes suppressing the young solar power industry.

This summer the solar-vs.-utility conflict has centered on dueling proposals seeking voters to back solar-related constitutional amendments in Florida. One side aligned with the state's utilities recently boasted it has raised more money than the other.

The recently created Consumers for Smart Solar, whose proposal seeks to maintain the status quo in Florida, in July raised $463,045. Its contributions included $30,000 from Florida Power & Light, $30,000 from Duke Energy, $30,000 from Gulf Power and $25,000 from Tampa Electric Co. — power companies eager to control any serious rollout of solar in the state.

The solar advocacy group, known as Floridians for Solar Choice, reported that it raised $81,788 in July, bringing its overall total to $436,741, according to the News Service of Florida. The group has received $50,000 from a political committee linked to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and $25,000 from the group Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

Come Sept. 1, the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to review the clarity of Floridians for Solar Choice's proposed ballot language. If the court signs off, Floridians for Solar Choice would need to collect 683,149 valid signatures to reach the ballot. As of the start of this week, it had submitted 105,167 signatures. The pro-utility Consumers for Smart Solar had not submitted any signatures to the state.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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