War over solar amendments flares into battle for signatures

Homes in the Trilogy community, equipped with solar panels, are seen from the Magnolia Clubhouse. Trilogy is a 55 and over residential subdivision in Groveland, a town west of Orlando, where power is generated by solar energy.
Homes in the Trilogy community, equipped with solar panels, are seen from the Magnolia Clubhouse. Trilogy is a 55 and over residential subdivision in Groveland, a town west of Orlando, where power is generated by solar energy.
Published Nov. 1, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Although many Floridians may not know it, two competing organizations are circulating petitions about solar power that could dictate the future of the state's lucrative electricity market in a well-funded battle for signatures — and voter confusion has been the result.

Becky Van Horn of Hollywood says she "was duped" into signing a utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar petition by being told it would make it easier for people to switch to solar power in Florida.

"I didn't realize there were two petitions going around," said Van Horn, a senior at Florida International University who signed a petition on the Biscayne Bay campus after talking to a "very knowledgeable" pro-solar petition gatherer. "I think a lot of people do that. They don't really read what they're signing."

Donna Redish of Tampa says she "was scammed" into signing the same petition because it was described as the "revised, updated version" of the competing Floridians for Solar Choice initiative she had already signed.

And when Greg Fussell was handed the Smart Solar petition, he rejected it as the one promoted by utility companies, so he was given another — the one promoted by the solar industry, he reported in a letter to the editor of the Gainesville Sun.

"Why the first one?" Fussell said he asked the young petition gatherer outside the University of Florida Health Science Center. "I get paid more," he was told.

Organizers of the utility-backed Smart Solar initiative say they have no intention of misleading voters.

"It defies all logic to suggest that we think confusing our amendment with theirs will help us get signatures," said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the group. "If that is happening, we want to know about it because we won't tolerate it."

But it's a scenario many predicted when a coalition of solar companies launched the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment last spring that, if successful, threatens to impose unprecedented competition upon Florida utility monopolies by allowing the establishment of independently run solar installations across the state. The utilities fought back and launched a rival amendment, Consumers for Smart Solar, to leave things as they are and let state and local regulators decide.

Both amendments now aim to get on the 2016 ballot. Both must get court approval for the ballot language, collect 683,149 valid petition signatures by Feb. 1, and then win 60 percent of the vote in November — and both look alike.

Floridians for Solar Choice, with the ballot title "Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply," launched by a Knoxville-based clean-energy group that has been at the forefront of bringing solar to Florida for the last decade, would allow property owners to sign lease agreements with solar companies to finance and install equipment. They would be allowed to generate up to 2 megawatts of solar electricity — enough to power an estimated 164 homes in a year — that can be sold directly to contiguous properties, and to the utility that services the area.

The proposal has the support of a diverse coalition of organizations, from environmentalists to the Tea Party Network, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation, the League of Women Voters, the Christian Coalition and the Libertarian Party.

Florida is one of four states that prohibits anyone but a regulated utility from selling electricity, and, after years of trying to change that in the state Capitol, backers of the Solar Choice proposal are taking the fight to voters. The amendment also prevents utility companies from trying to erect barriers to competition by charging solar users new fees in order to connect to the grid or use backup electricity — a tactic electric companies are using in other states that allow third-party sales of solar energy.

The ballot language has been approved by the Florida Supreme Court, but organizers still must get more than 480,000 signatures. To get there, they have raised $1.3 million — mostly from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors. The group relies on volunteers, but also has hired Progressive Campaigns Inc. to gather petitions. The petition-gathering firm also brought medical marijuana, Fair Districts and the Land and Water Conservation amendments to the Florida ballot in recent years, and is handling the marijuana petition again.

On the other side is Consumers for Smart Solar, which would embed into the Constitution what is now allowed by law: "the right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use."

Current law allows consumers to install solar as long as they pay for the initial costs of the installation and do not sell the power generated to others. State regulators require solar companies to buy excess power from individuals at retail rates, and the amendment would continue that.

The Smart Solar group has raised $1.4 million, mostly from utilities or supportive companies, and it has yet to submit its ballot language, with the title "Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice," for review by the Florida Supreme Court.

The amendment has the backing of an array of business groups, including the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the 60 Plus Association, and Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition. To get the nearly 570,000 signatures it needs, it has hired Nevada-based National Voter Outreach.

The rival petitions have fueled an unprecedented race for signatures. Until last week, the utility-backed Smart Solar group paid twice as much as the clean energy-backed Solar Choice group to its hired petition gatherers: $4 per signature.

But after reaching a crucial threshold on Oct. 22, and getting court approval for its ballot language, the Solar Choice group upped the ante. It raised its rates for each new signature from $2 to $3.25.

"We're serious as a heart attack to qualify this thing and their whole purpose in life is to confuse and block," said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

When Solar Choice paid $1, Smart Solar paid $2, he said. "When we went to $2, they went to $4. We'll see what they're going to do now."

Bascom, the Smart Solar spokeswoman, accused the rival group of "strong arm tactics," saying they required medical marijuana petition gatherers to only carry the Solar Choice initiative, not her group's Smart Solar ballot.

But Smith denied that is happening. Instead, he said, his petition gatherers take the opposite view. "We don't really care if they carry both because we know their amendment isn't going to get through the Supreme Court."

Bascom said that although petition gatherers are independent contractors, her group will not allow their petition gatherers to carry both petitions "since it represents an obvious conflict of interest to carry two opposing issues."

"As independent contractors, they can work for different petition drives, just like political consultants or lobbyists or other vendors can work for different clients — so long as it does not present a conflict of interest," she said. She also acknowledged that her vendor has threatened legal action.

"If we find you are working both solar petitions there will be legal consequences and we will not purchase any of your Smart Solar petitions," warned a National Voter Outreach organizer on a September phone message provided to the Times/Herald.

Bascom noted, however, that "there are occasionally bad actors who, despite agreeing not to carry both, do so in the hopes of not getting caught. When they are caught, our vendor no longer uses their services."

Meanwhile, organizers report frequent confusion on the street over what both amendments do.

Jennifer Rubiello, state director of St. Petersburg-based Environment Florida, said that she often sees petition gatherers for Smart Solar promoting their plan as if it were the Solar Choice initiative — claiming it will bring more choice to the solar market in Florida.

"It infuriates me on a daily basis," she said. "Either they think they are helping the solar cause and they've been duped or they are just there to get the quick bucks."

Sarah Younger, an artist in Boynton Beach who has organized petition-gathering efforts in Palm Beach County, said she has watched as competing petition gatherers "give people a lot of misinformation."

"They made claims that this will make solar energy available to everyone, that it will create more solar installation and generally saying this is the one to sign because it ensures solar energy," she said. "They are lies and definitely meant to confuse and detract."

Bascom said their petition gatherers "agree to use talking points from the same fact sheets that are on our website" and using the rival's logos and materials "is not authorized." She said that if she is provided a description of the circulator, or their name and where and when the allegations took place, they would have the vendor investigated.

Younger, who is a member of Artists for Climate Action, said that in some ways the intense competition and confusion has galvanized volunteers. A training she hosted at a Boynton Beach community center last week drew 35 volunteers.

"We had a full house because people felt their efforts are being thwarted and that made them more energized," she said. "It has made them want to work harder."

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at (850) 222-3095 or Follow @MaryEllen Klas.