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Sen. Brandes files solar energy bill; solar coalition opposes it

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he was unaware of concerns about the effects of his bill.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he was unaware of concerns about the effects of his bill.
Published Feb. 25, 2015

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed legislation that would allow those who generate electricity from solar power to sell it directly to others.

Brandes' bill, which is similar to a ballot petition being circulated by a pro-solar coalition, also would allow utility companies to install rooftop solar panels on businesses and sell that electricity to those customers without regulators' approval.

Organizers of the solar petition oppose Brandes' bill because they say it is an attempt by the utilities to undermine their ballot initiative. They argue that the bill could force those who use solar and want to remain connected to the grid to pay exorbitant fees that could make solar unaffordable.

"We are opposing SB 1118 very strongly as written," said Debbie Dooley, one of the organizers of the petition drive. "We are in communication with Sen. Brandes' office and are hopeful he will pull this bad bill."

In addition to the potential of additional costs to solar users, Dooley said the bill would give the state Public Service Commission broad authority and control over how solar is deployed.

Brandes said he was unaware of concerns about the language in the bill. As an advocate for solar, Brandes said he wants to see good policy come forward, and he believes that a thorough policy discussion should take place rather than a constitutional amendment for issues as important as medical marijuana and solar power.

"I think most of these conversations are best handled through the legislative process," Brandes said. "I think it's an important issue. The Legislature would be wise to address this issue sooner rather than later."

Brandes' bill has intensified an already growing debate in Florida about solar power. The Sunshine State lags behind states such as New Jersey and North Carolina when it comes to solar power.

Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, is part of the Floridians for Solar Choice coalition that has the backing of about two-dozen organizations.

The groups argue that their ballot initiative 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 it directly to others, such as tenants, without having to go through a utility.

Under Florida law, only utilities can sell electricity directly to consumers. Solar proponents argue that 36 other states allow others to do it. Removing the utilities as middlemen, the argument goes, could help spur solar as a clean-energy alternative.

The petition drive now includes the likes of tea party and Christian Coalition conservatives as well as libertarians, liberal environmentalists such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace — all of whom have locked arms in opposition to the utilities' control over electricity.

The utilities have said that solar is not as effective in Florida because the state's cloud cover makes solar panels inefficient.

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They add that solar and energy efficiency, if not done correctly, will hurt the poor. The electric companies say the wealthy will buy solar and leave those who can least afford it to pay the costs of power plants and power lines.

But on Friday, the national board of the NAACP issued a statement backing solar and energy-efficiency efforts. The statement is in contrast to Florida NAACP leaders, who have made arguments similar to those of the utilities.

"In ratifying this resolution, the board and membership of the NAACP have affirmed that we can transition from fossil fuel-based energy production that is rampantly causing harm by polluting communities," said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

"We can improve the economic well-being of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color and provide avenues for asset development and participation as we chart a new course for how we generate energy in the United States and beyond," Patterson said.

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