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  1. Florida Politics

Donations pour in to utility-backed solar initiative

TALLAHASSEE — The money race for two dueling solar power groups is getting hot.

In October alone, the supporters of one constitutional amendment aiming to protect the status quo in solar power raised $2.3 million, about half from the state's largest utility companies, including Tampa Electric Co. and Duke Energy.

That's more money in one month than a rival initiative pushing for competition in solar energy has raised all year.

Consumers for Smart Solar, the group backing the pro-utility amendment, wants to enshrine existing rules for solar power in Florida in the state Constitution, allowing homeowners to pay to install panels on their roofs.

The group launched this summer after a coalition of conservative and liberal organizations announced their own solar energy initiative: Floridians for Solar Choice, which hopes to let people lease equipment from solar energy companies and sell the power they generate to adjacent properties. That would cut into utility companies' ability to sell solar energy with little to no competition.

But the utility companies insist consumers would lose out if Floridians for Solar Choice is successful.

"The other option would permit unregulated solar energy sales by third-party sellers and we really want to avoid our consumers being exposed to something like that," said Sylvia Vega, spokeswoman for Tampa Electric, the second-largest donor to the campaign after Florida Power and Light. "It doesn't level the playing field."

October's windfall for Smart Solar is a clear show of muscle by the group to overcome Floridians for Solar Choice, which raised $476,684 last month.

The fundraising divide has grown as energy companies have put in more and more money. Florida's four major utilities have funneled nearly $1.9 million into the campaign's coffers since July.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — the nonprofit bankrolling Floridians for Solar Choice — says he doesn't see the competing amendment's big money as a sign of strength.

"They're having to spend a lot more," he said. "And it doesn't surprise me because they're scared to death. You're going to have to spend a lot to stop us."

Both groups are hoping to put language on the ballot for next November's election. That's where the money comes in handy.

Making it on next November's ballot requires voters' signatures on 683,149 petitions from 14 of the state's 27 congressional districts. And that means they have to pay petition gatherers.

Yet despite spending almost $2.5 million on a Nevada-based political consultant that specializes in petition drives, Consumers for Smart Solar lags behind Floridians for Solar Choice in gathering signatures so far.

The utilities and other pro-business groups give the Smart Solar amendment access to deep pockets, making landmark months like October possible.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which backs the Solar Choice group, refuses to disclose its donors. While he said he doesn't feel threatened by the utilities, Smith said his campaign could use more money.

"We've got to raise more money, there's no doubt about it, because we don't sit on ratepayers' money," he said. "We're not a billion-dollar industry."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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