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Republican-led group launches ballot petition to boost solar power in Florida

Tory Perfetti of Tampa leads Conservatives for Energy Freedom.
Published Jan. 7, 2015

Backers of broader use of solar energy in Florida have quietly launched a petition for the 2016 ballot that would allow those who generate electricity from the sun to sell the power directly to other consumers.

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, though solar proponents argue that 36 states allow the practice. By removing the utilities as middlemen, the argument goes, it could help spur solar as a clean-energy alternative.

Led by Republican Tory Perfetti, a Tampa resident and head of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, the effort is making for strange bedfellows.

Some Republicans, including the Republican Liberty Caucus of Tampa Bay, and Democrats are teaming up to support the initiative that they say is long overdue. Environmental groups are expected to join the effort at a press conference Jan. 14.

Under the political action committee Floridians for Solar Choice Inc., backers of the amendment criticize Florida utilities as having too much control over the Sunshine State's power. "Floridians have a right to choose where they are going to have their energy coming from," Perfetti said.

The group started its petition drive this week but plans to make a major push over the weekend and early next week.

"I think the people understand that … the power companies have been running the show in Florida for too long," said one supporter, Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "I'm very excited and happy they're doing it."

The Florida Department of State approved the petition Dec. 23 without fanfare. Perfetti waited until after the holidays to begin circulating it.

Perfetti is working with Georgia tea party leader Debbie Dooley, who has pledged to push for more solar in Florida. Dooley has successfully pressed other regulators and policymakers for more solar in neighboring Georgia.

Dooley said the reason the solar efforts have been successful in Republican-dominated areas is that opening up the free market and giving people choice is a core conservative principle.

"Conservatives will be out front on this to give Floridians choice and a voice," Dooley said. "All too often, the only voice that is heard is the voice of these very powerful and deep-pocketed monopoly utilities."

Scott McIntyre, president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy and CEO of Solar Energy Management, said the issue was about free enterprise. Prohibiting the sale of electricity from solar power owners to consumers is "stopping the growth of solar power in Florida," he said.

Floridians for Solar Choice has significant hurdles to overcome. First, the group must gain 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016, to get the initiative on the 2016 ballot. Then, the measure will need 60 percent support to pass.

Advocates could face tough opposition from Florida's utilities, which have opposed the proliferation of rooftop solar.

Utilities have argued that as more homeowners and business put solar on their rooftops, it puts more pressure on low-income and poor residents to pay to maintain power plants, power lines and other parts of the electric grid.

Others counter that constantly building power plants hurts the poor more, and say the utilities simply are worried about losing revenue.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the utility expects the solar petition to be one of "many energy policy proposals that will emerge over the next few months. We will evaluate the proposal and support the ones that are fair and beneficial to all customers."

Duke Energy Florida also said it wants to ensure any proposal benefits all customers.

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

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