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Conservatives launch series of town halls on solar power and 'energy choice'

ST. PETERSBURG — Dozens of solar proponents gathered at the Sunshine Center Tuesday night to voice concerns about Duke Energy and call for more rooftop solar in Florida during the first of a series of town hall meetings planned across the state.

Conservatives for Energy Freedom have dubbed the series of town hall meetings the "Energy Choice Listening Tour." Tuesday night they heard an earful.

Some complained about Duke's policy of changing their billing dates. Others spoke of frustration that Duke customers are paying $3.2 billion for two nuclear projects that will never produce a kilowatt of power.

They questioned why Duke and other Florida utilities say solar doesn't work well in Florida.

"I'm outraged," said Karalee German, of St. Pete Beach. German said she used solar power when she lived in Virginia to heat water at her home. "How stupid do they think we are?"

Added St. Petersburg resident Nyjola Grybauskas: "We want a change. We need to have a change. Let's do something to change the laws. We are not stupid Floridians."

As an initial litmus test for how the series of town halls might go, Tory Perfetti, chairman of the Florida chapter of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, couldn't be more pleased. He had hoped for at least 50 people. The crowd reached about 75.

Organizers plan to hold similar town halls in the Miami area, Orlando and Tallahassee to discuss the "impediments" and the "solutions" to increasing use of solar in Florida.

"People are saying, 'Where have you been? Why did it take so long?' " Perfetti told the audience.

The effort is backed by a diverse and growing coalition that is calling itself Floridians for Solar Choice. The coalition includes an unusual group of tea party and Christian Coalition conservatives, libertarians, liberal environmentalists such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Florida Retail Federation that would allow those who generate electricity from the sun to sell the power directly to other consumers.

Organizers announced Tuesday that the Florida Tea Party Network also has joined the campaign. The Tea Party Network includes 85 tea party groups across the Sunshine State that will stand with other tea party leaders that are already a part of the solar effort.

The coalition sees cq solutions to increasing solar in Florida, including a bill proposed by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would eliminate the tangible property tax on solar installations.

In addition, coalition members have 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.

If the 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 then sell that power directly to others, such as tenants, without having to go through a utility.

Under Florida law, only utilities can sell electricity directly to consumers. By removing the utilities as middlemen, the argument goes, it could help spur solar as a clean-energy alternative.

Florida mostly 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 an 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 proponents expect a fight.

So Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the national tea party and a leader in the Florida solar effort, gave a list of marching orders to the crowd to further build the movement.

"I want you guys to e-mail me," Dooley told the crowd. "I want you to e-mail me with questions. Do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call me. This is not my first rodeo. I've been in these fights. I never get into a project that I don't expect to win."

Julia Watson, a Largo resident who attended the town hall, said she couldn't be happier about the effort, even though she's a liberal and the organizers are conservatives.

"I can't believe (the utilities) are allowed to influence the governor and the legislature to the degree that they do," said Watson, praising the effort to bring about change. "I am thrilled with this, absolutely thrilled."

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

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