Americans for Prosperity criticizes solar but avoids ballot position

Published March 11, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Conservative political advocacy organization Americans for Prosperity on Tuesday criticized solar power as an energy source that requires incentives and subsidies but stopped short of opposing a ballot initiative that would allow those in Florida who generate electricity from the sun to sell it directly to others.

In emails circulated across the state, Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch, has criticized the initiative as a way of using "government and taxpayers to prop up the solar industry."

But when asked during a news conference Tuesday whether AFP opposed the amendment, the organization's Florida director, Chris Hudson, said, "Currently we do not have a position on that initiative. This is a broad-based conversation on solar."

Hudson said government should not be involved in picking winners and losers when it comes to energy, but should allow the free market to decide.

While AFP protested some measures designed to promote solar, the state Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee voted in favor of a bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would reduce the real estate or personal property tax for businesses that install rooftop solar. In addition, devices that produce renewable energy would be exempt from tangible property tax.

AFP's news conference came as momentum continues to build for the solar ballot initiative that has forged alliances among a growing coalition of unlikely participants.

The coalition, dubbed Floridians for Solar Choice, includes tea party and Christian Coalition conservatives as well as Libertarians; liberal environmentalists such as the Southern Alliance, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace; Physicians for Social Responsibility; and the Florida Retail Federation.

If the proposed ballot measure passes, solar proponents argue it would open up Florida's solar energy market, which has largely stagnated for years. The measure would allow businesses or property owners to produce up to 2 megawatts of solar power and sell that power directly to others, such as tenants, without having to go through a utility.

Under state law, only utilities can sell electricity directly to consumers, though solar proponents argue that 36 states allow the practice. Only five states, including Florida, ban it.

Members of the coalition, such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, see solar power as a way to diversify the state's energy mix.

A report released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that Florida policymakers are setting up its residents and businesses for electricity price spikes by relying too heavily on natural gas for electricity generation. Focusing more on energy efficiency and renewable energy resources, like solar power, would help insulate consumers against these economic risks and, by diversifying the state's mix of power, reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions.

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The 43-page report, The Natural Gas Gamble, finds that 62 percent of Florida's electricity currently comes from natural gas plants, up from 44 percent in 2007.

The report warns that heavy reliance could rise to nearly 90 percent if Florida replaces aging, inefficient coal plants entirely with natural gas to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. Instead, the UCS report urges the state to prioritize investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency to meet the plan's emission reduction requirements.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit group committed to finding practical solutions to address such issues as global warming, hunger, transportation and the threat of nuclear war.

"Florida has entered the danger zone of relying too much on natural gas," said Jeff Deyette, senior energy analyst at UCS and report co-author. "There's a well-documented history of volatility in natural gas prices, including major spikes." While natural gas prices are currently low, he warns, they could spike, financially hurting Floridians.