1. Opinion

How the power companies killed solar energy in the Sunshine State | Daniel Ruth

Florida Power and Light has a large solar array in Sarasota, but homeowners in Florida aren’t so lucky, given the regulatory impediments to making them practical for regular people. [ROB MATTSON | Sarasota Herald-Tribune]
Florida Power and Light has a large solar array in Sarasota, but homeowners in Florida aren’t so lucky, given the regulatory impediments to making them practical for regular people. [ROB MATTSON | Sarasota Herald-Tribune]
Published Jul. 12, 2019

This is always the risk when you try to build a better mousetrap. Someone is likely to come along and build a bigger mouse.

So it should hardly come as a big surprise that when efforts began to bring solar energy to Florida it was greeted by some naysayers who argued the Sunshine State (too subtle a marketing concept?) was actually a dark, dreary landscape that made "Blade Runner" look like Tahiti.

A few days ago, my old Tampa Bay Times colleague Ivan Penn, now with the New York Times, explored the difficulties the solar power industry has confronted in establishing a foothold in Florida.

This was less an analysis of Florida's solar energy potential than it was a stroll down the state's insane Ezra Pound-like denial of reality.

Or consider a quote from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who offered up this spit-take moment: "I've had electric utility executives say with a straight face that we can't have solar power in Florida because we have so many cloudy days."

This is a bit like arguing gondolas will never work in Venice because there's not enough water.

Let's do an experiment. Go outside. Look up. What is that big hot thingy in the sky?

Perhaps when it comes to stuff like this it could be suggested that while the rest of the state is sweltering, up in Tallahassee a nuclear winter of radioactive fairy dust has stifled any chance common sense might bloom within the Florida Legislature.

Good government doesn't come cheap. And inept government is even more pricey.

Penn noted that from 2014 until May, the state's largest utilities pumped some $57 million in campaign contributions to members of the Florida Legislature. Florida Power & Light alone dropped $31 million of that total, proving once again that while members of the Florida Legislature can't (Heaven forbid!) be bought, they are available for a time share.

And just to make sure that investment in turning the state House and Senate into a buffet line of legalized baksheesh was protected, the utilities also spent $6 million on lobbying, with at least one utility lobbyist for every two members of the Florida Legislature.

That's a lot of babysitting. But it has been worth every dime and bar tab.

After all if you are a homeowner who wants to install solar energy panels on your home, you likely find yourself navigating a maze of bureaucratic hurdles that would exhaust a steeplechase jockey.

Penn cited examples of homeowners waiting for months to have their panels activated. Thanks to your public servants in Tallahassee, Florida is only one of eight states that prohibits the sale of solar power directly to consumers unless the provider is a utility. And Florida also requires homeowners to pay onerous and expensive insurance policies on their solar panels.

Indeed, one homeowner was discouraged from installing solar because in Florida "it rains."

Florida law also bars solar energy companies from owning panels and selling the energy they create directly to consumers as 27 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico already do.

Meanwhile as the utilities attempt to suppress solar energy, the companies themselves are pursuing their own solar energy businesses.

Forgive an admittedly naïve observation.

The Florida Legislature is dominated by a Republican Party that loves to draw close to its bosom the high ideals of capitalism.

In the spirit of Freedom and Liberty (exclamation marks optional), Republicans extol the virtues of entrepreneurship, free markets and the spirit of competition – unless, of course, all this fiddle-faddle blithering about free enterprise threatens the bottom lines of the state's most entrenched (and deep-pocketed) monopolies.

If the Florida Legislature really believed in all this claptrap about the power of ideas, innovation, the value of robust competition and the rights of consumers to make their own choices about the goods and services they buy, well then, why shouldn't the solar power industry be permitted to operate on a level playing field with the state's utilities?

According to the Republican faux mantra of rugged individualism, businesses ought to succeed or fail on the strength of creativity, sound management and their consumer appeal. Fair enough.

Ah, fairness.

All the solar power industry is entitled from government is fairness. The fairness to compete unimpeded. It's not too much to ask.

Instead the state's utilities are using their money and their power to pay off Tallahassee to protect their interests against competition. So much for progress.

Sounds a little bit like (shush!) socialism, doesn't it?