A capital rally to encourage solar energy development in Florida became partisan Thursday as organizers used the event to call out incumbent Gov. Rick Scott and welcomed his election-year rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
"In Tallahassee, it's pay to play right now – the ones that are controlling the money are controlling the power,'' said Stephen A. Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a solar industry-backed group which advocates for the development of alternatives to fossil fuels. The group funded an Integrity Florida report that found that the state's four top electric companies have spent $18 million between 2004-2012 on state and legislative campaigns.
In the last year, the utility companies have given the governor's campaign $2.5 million this election cycle, Smith said, "they get what they want."
Smith said that Florida has the third largest potential for rooftop solar generation in the nation but ranks 18th in solar installation because, he said, the utility industry fears the market threat of allowing homeowners and businesses to generate their own electricity.
He said they invited the Republican governor to attend the rally, but he didn't come.That prompted Smith to declare a new rule: "You can't be governor of the Sunshine State if you do not support solar power." He begin a call-and-response with the crowd of about 150 activists wearing t-shirts and sunglasses.
"Rick Scott,'' they shouted. "MIA today. Gone tomorrow."
Scott has not been a vocal advocate for alternative energy and didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday. In his first year in office, he opposed a proposal by Florida's five major utilities that would have allowed them to charge customers as much as $1.5 billion over four years to produce more renewable energy.
Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democrat who wants his old job back, was content to oblige the solar advocates.
"We deserve to have clean energy. We deserve to have solar energy," he told the crowd. He held up his campaign bumper sticker with a logo that he says his wife, Carol, developed.
"See what's on top of that? It's the sun,'' he said. "It's important that we send a message... We're going to clean up Florida and were going to clean up it by going more solar.
In typical Crist fashion, he dropped a name: Elon Musk, the billionaire developer of the Tesla cars and SolarCity, one of the largest solar companies in North America, whom he met to talk about solar.
"He said, Charlie you guys ought to be the global example of solar energy on the planet,'' he said. "You're the Sunshine State….We'll get it done and we'll not only clean up the planet. We'll clean up that place,'' he says, pointing to the Capitol behind him.
In the crowd were a handful of Republican Party of Florida trackers, including Lauren Schenone, who used the event to shout out questions to Crist about working for lawyer John Morgan and using a private plane for campaign travel.
Crist didn't specify what policy changes he would endorse if elected, except to say they would follow some of the executive orders he signed while governor.
Crist signed three executive orders in July 2007 after the Republican-led Legislature refused to adopt his clean-energy initiatives. The pre-recession orders set statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets, called for increased energy efficiency, increased the use of clean, renewable energy sources and removed market barriers for renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind energy. He also proposed spending $200 million on green technologies.
"This stuff is not rocket science,'' he told reporters. "Reducing carbon emissions and making sure we use more solar and more wind is just the right thing to do. Those are the kinds of things I would want to assert but I need to win first."
He acknowledged that even though he had a Republican-led Legislature as a Republican governor he couldn't get his solar initiatives passed. As a Democrat, he said he could succeed "because I'm an optimist and, if we win, it will send a message to those members."
"We need people power because they've got all the money in the world,'' he said.
Crist acknowledged that once he faced Legislative resistance on solar issues, he didn't push them as aggressively the rest of his term.
"With the passage of time, hopefully you get a little wiser and I think the need to push those things even harder is more clear to me than it's ever been,'' He said. "No question."
Crist said no utility companies have offered his campaign money and if they do, he'll "cross that bridge." He recalled how Florida Power & Light offered him $1 million when he became the Republican nominee for governor in 2007, "I told them. 'Keep it.' I don't want to win with your money. If they say we want to partner on some of these things, then I'll be open minded and look at it but as it sits right now, no."
Asked about the latest Scott campaign ad, with its claims that misstate the facts regarding Obamacare, Crist said "It's obviously misleading at best."
But he repeated his support for Obamacare. The ad "talks about the fact that I think that Obamacare is great.,'' he said. "It is great. I run into people all the time since those ads started running and people tell me you know what, we like what you're saying, it is great."
He recalled a conversation with a woman in Orlando who said the ads worked in Crist's favor because she lost two brothers who suffered from juvenile diabetes and couldn't get coverage.