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Romano: The Koch brothers say solar energy will flop; Georgia says they're wrong

Entrenched energy companies and their supporters are fighting hard to keep solar energy from hitting the mainstream in Florida, using messages and raising concerns that have been discredited in Georgia.
Entrenched energy companies and their supporters are fighting hard to keep solar energy from hitting the mainstream in Florida, using messages and raising concerns that have been discredited in Georgia.
Published Mar. 19, 2015

He'd heard the accusations before, in another time and place.

Support solar energy, and you will support higher electric bills. Less reliability. More tax subsidies and unwanted government interference.

This is what the critics said in Georgia in 2013, and they're saying it again in Florida today.

"Total foolishness," Georgia Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald said Wednesday. "We have no state subsidies, and there has been no upward pressure on rates. If anything, it's held down the cost of fuel.

"They can come down to Florida and blow all the smoke they want, but don't you believe it. I initiated this in 2013, and I had no problem getting through a primary and general election in 2014. What does that tell you about how solar energy is working in Georgia?"

Consider this an early warning shot in a solar energy battle that may soon take center stage around here.

Governors and lawmakers in Florida have been so deep in the pockets of power companies, they have allowed the Sunshine State to lag behind a dozen others in the use of solar energy.

That's why a group called Floridians for Solar Choice is working to have a constitutional amendment placed on the 2016 ballot that would effectively eliminate an arcane state law that forbids anyone other than a utility company to sell energy.

By the time you finish reading this, solar backers may already have enough certified signatures to trigger a state Supreme Court review of the ballot language.

Just don't get the idea this will be a smooth process.

Americans for Prosperity, founded by the oil-rich Koch brothers, held a news conference in Tallahassee last week to warn citizens about … well, I'm not sure about what.

They did not specifically take a stand against the constitutional amendment. And they did not specifically say solar energy was a bad idea. They just sort of threw out vague notions of subsidies, mandates and male pattern baldness.

And then, earlier this week, the Florida Faith & Freedom Coalition asked solar backers to clarify and strengthen the language of the proposed amendment to specifically rule out subsidies.

Since the amendment has nothing to do with subsidies, there's a pretty good chance this might be a red herring.

"These arguments are absolutely, 100 percent, ridiculous falsehoods," said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice. "Any individual who reads the amendment can see there is no mention of subsidies or mandates."

So what is this really about?

Well, you might want to consider the possibility that power companies in Florida aren't thrilled with the idea of competition. And this amendment would invite that possibility.

Basically, the amendment would allow a solar company — or anyone wanting to invest in the industry — to provide solar energy to businesses or homeowners.

And that means Publix or Walmart — or your neighbor Rob — could use solar energy without the hassle of installing, operating or maintaining it themselves.

When Georgia was considering an expansion into solar energy two years ago, an Americans for Prosperity representative warned that electric rates would soar by 40 percent and power outages would be common. Turns out, that hasn't happened.

Critics warn the amendment will lead to government mandates and an unfair advantage for solar energy. In reality, the amendment would eliminate a government regulation that gives utility companies complete control of the industry in Florida.

"They lie because they're desperate," said Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "It's threatening their sweetheart deal."

The bell is about to ring, the fight is about to begin.

Feel free to choose your heroes and villains.

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