Tea party pushing for Florida to step up solar energy efforts

Debbie Dooley says Republicans should be leading the way for solar energy in Florida.
Debbie Dooley says Republicans should be leading the way for solar energy in Florida.
Published Oct. 18, 2014

Florida's investor-owned utilities have a new, unexpected opponent: the tea party.

Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, plans to push for more solar in the Sunshine State as she has in Georgia. Her ultimate goal is to challenge the monopoly control of Florida's major utilities.

This month, the Georgia resident launched the group Conservatives for Energy Freedom, with the first chapter in Florida.

"The difference between Florida and Georgia is conservatives are leading the way to push for more solar and to allow freedom," Dooley said. "In Florida, (conservatives) put up roadblocks.

"It's appalling," she said. "The Republicans should be leading the way for Florida in this. It's violating free market principles."

Florida's investor-owned utilities have enjoyed what many see as a lock on Tallahassee's Republican-dominated political world.

An uprising from within the Republican Party could alter the course of the state's energy policy at a time when a growing number of grass roots groups have been stepping up their efforts — from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, to the Sierra Club with funding from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, to the NextGen Climate group that is politically attacking Gov. Rick Scott with funding from billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer is supporting Charlie Crist in the governor's race.

The nation's power companies already are increasingly under pressure as solar's price continues to fall, solar panels become more efficient and solar companies offer programs that make it easier for homeowners and businesses to install the systems on their roofs.

Combined with more energy-efficient products, solar is helping electricity customers envision the kind of personalized service that technology has brought to the communications, media and music industries.

And the threat to the utilities isn't going unnoticed.

What the rest of the world admiringly calls renewable energy and "energy efficiency,'' the utilities call "disruptive'' technologies.

"The financial risks created by disruptive challenges include declining utility revenues, increasing costs and lower profitability, particularly over the long-term," according to a report written for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents all U.S. investor-owned utilities.

Florida's investor-owned utilities already have begun to take aim at the threat. They have petitioned the state Public Service Commission to gut their energy efficiency and conservation goals by more than 90 percent. The PSC has yet to rule.

Utilities criticize rebates and other subsidies for solar and energy efficiency as benefits for the "wealthy" at the expense of the "poor."

The wealthy, they argue, will place a greater burden on the poor if they decrease their use of utility produced electricity with solar and energy efficiency. Someone, after all, must cover the expenses for the grid, and that cost would fall on the backs of those who can't afford the individualized systems.

Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light are all developing small solar projects that they will control. But they put little support behind rooftop solar.

Alex Glenn, Duke's Florida president, has said that solar isn't the best for Florida because it has clouds.

"We are the Sunshine State, but we're also the partly cloudy state," Glenn told state lawmakers. He added that improved battery technology would make solar more viable because then it could also provide power at night, not just when the sun shines.

None of the state's three investor-owned utilities would comment specifically about the tea party's latest effort. They noted their efforts to test the potential for solar such as Duke's proposal for a solar farm in Pinellas County and Tampa Electric's recent announcement of an array at Tampa International Airport.

"Tampa Electric believes in the promise of renewable energy, such as solar power, because it plays a role in our energy future," said Cherie Jacobs, a Tampa Electric spokeswoman. "Renewable sources should be considered part of a balanced energy portfolio."

Dooley, who calls herself a "right-wing radical grandmother," argues that building more and more centralized power plants increases costs for everyone and hurts the poor the most.

She is crisscrossing the country pushing the message that Republicans ought to embrace solar power because it gives individuals and businesses more control over their lives.

"The best thing is that the sun never sends a rate increase — unlike giant regulated electric monopolies," Dooley wrote in a news release announcing the formation of Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

"The utility model is that they socialize the costs but privatize the profits," said the 56-year-old Dooley. "They use captive ratepayer money to donate to elected officials and to lobby the Legislature in the best interest of the corporations, not in the best interests of the ratepayers."

An activist since 1976, Dooley knows how to organize. She was one of 22 on the first conference call to organize the initial round of tea parties.

Dooley already has successfully pushed for more solar in the Peach State. She gained backing from Bubba McDonald, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission who had served as a Republican member of the legislature.

McDonald himself has challenged Florida to own up to its name as the Sunshine State.

Dooley said she wants to "remove the barriers that prohibit solar from flourishing in Florida."

Those barriers, she said, include the state's tangible personal property tax on solar installations, which inhibits homeowners and businesses from taking advantage of leasing programs available in other states.

She also intends to target a Florida law the prohibits any business other than utilities from selling power directly to consumers, known as "third party sales." She said her effort would focus on allowing a business to install panels on a home or business and sell that power to a consumer.

"Republicans need to be leading the way on this," Dooley said. "I fully believe we have an energy revolution in our nation right now."