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Coalition of conservatives, liberals fight for more Florida solar power

Florida law now does
not allow those who generate electricity from the sun to sell that power directly to other consumers.
Published Jan. 14, 2015

Imagine the Christian Coalition and the tea party joining hands with liberals and environmentalists.

Add to the Kumbaya moment Libertarians and Florida's retail business federation.

They all plan to unite this morning for a news conference in Tallahassee about their campaign to allow those in Florida who generate electricity from the sun to sell that power directly to other consumers. Right now, that's illegal here.

The coalition, which has dubbed itself Floridians for Solar Choice, has crafted a petition that was approved for circulation last month. They'll need 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016, to get the question on the ballot for the 2016 election.

For some it's ideological. For others, such as the retailers, it's pure economics.

"It is strange bedfellows," said Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a Tennessee-based environmental group. "We all agree we want a free market.

"As long as we don't talk about a lot of other issues," he said and laughed, "we'll be fine."

So what made this alliance possible?

"People care about their electric bills," said Ash Mason, the Christian Coalition's Southeast regional energy policy director.

"We're not here to battle traditional coal, nuclear or natural gas," Mason said of the Christian Coalition's position. "We want to push for anything that's efficient. It's about independence."

Florida relies on investor-owned utilities such as Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light.

They have argued that solar costs too much, that too many clouds hang over the Sunshine State for solar to be effective. And if too many well-heeled utility customers go solar, the cost to maintain power lines and power plants will soar, adding undue burden on the poor, the utilities say.

The utility industry refers to solar and energy efficiency as disruptive technologies, as they threaten the electric companies' business model. Utilities earn money from building power plants as well as from selling electricity — not watching their customers disappear to their personal rooftop power plants.

"Solar power and other renewable resources will be an important part of Florida's energy future," said Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman. "We believe our best opportunity to promote solar in Florida is to work with state leaders to help create a policy to incorporate solar over the long-term and that is fair to all consumers and solar energy power generators."

Critics of the utilities argue that charging customers to build more power plants hurts the poor more than solar.

If the proposed ballot measure passes, solar proponents argue that it would open up Florida's solar energy market, which has largely stagnated for years. The measure would allow business 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.

"We just find it inconceivable that we can't contract with somebody to put solar on the rooftops we own and sell power," said Randy Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Retail Federation. "We're here because it means a lot to our bottom line."

By removing the utilities as middlemen, the argument goes, it could help spur solar as a clean-energy alternative.

Republican Tory Perfetti, a Tampa resident and head of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, is leading the ballot initiative. The coalition expects a tough fight against the utilities.

However, some have questioned whether the coalition can stick together considering members disagree on so many other issues.

"Can we trust them?" Smith said some of his organization's followers have asked on social media. "It's easy for folks to say, 'no way, no how.' "

Smith credits Georgia tea party leader Debbie Dooley with forging the alliance they've built. "I really find her to be somebody true to her principles."

Alex Snitker, vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Florida, said he will stand with the coalition Wednesday to support the initiative and urged members of his party to help get it on the ballot. Snitker said united fronts behind a solution are rare, but this one he believes should be given to the people to decide.

"Allowing for more choice and allowing more freedom," he said, "is a good thing."

Contact Ivan Penn at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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