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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Shed light on dark money in solar fight

Here is a glimpse at just how badly the utilities want to kill a constitutional amendment that would expand access to solar power in a state that desperately needs a shift in energy policy. They are not just voicing their opposition in court; they are putting big money behind the opponents. The utilities already have contributed nearly $300,000 to support a competing constitutional amendment aimed at confusing voters, killing the solar amendment and protecting their monopolies. This is not an issue that should be decided by the special interest with the deepest pockets.

The latest contribution reports show Tampa Electric has given $75,000 to the misnamed Consumers for Smart Solar and Duke Energy has contributed $60,000. Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, and Gulf Power have each contributed $80,000. More than a year away from the 2016 election, it is a safe bet those numbers will look like a modest down payment on a coordinated effort by the investor-owned utilities to keep solar competition out of Florida. Overall, the utility-backed group has raised more than $799,000 and had about $400,000 in the bank at the end of August.

By comparison, Floridians for Solar Choice, which is pushing the solar amendment, had collected about $437,000 and appeared nearly broke but received another $100,000 contribution in early September. On the bright side, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this month about whether the amendment met the legal requirements to appear on the ballot, and lawyers for Attorney General Pam Bondi and the utilities failed to make a convincing argument that the court should keep the amendment off the ballot.

Floridians for Solar Choice would allow homeowners and businesses to sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power on the same or adjacent property, which would be enough power to serve several hundred homes. Now only utilities can sell power in Florida, and this amendment would open the market for small-scale solar production. While the state Constitution is not the best place to set energy policy in an era of new technology and shifting consumer demands, the failure of the Legislature and the Public Service Commission to establish a smart way forward on solar has left no other alternative.

As the campaigns unfold, Florida voters will be caught in the middle of what has become a proxy fight between national players. The 60 Plus Association, a conservative nonprofit in Virginia, has contributed $100,000 to the pro-utility amendment. It has previously fought pro-solar efforts in Arizona and has received money from groups affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers, whom President Barack Obama called out earlier this month for working against efforts to promote clean energy. The National Black Chamber of Commerce has contributed $50,000, and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported last month that group receives significant funding from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and other fossil energy companies.

The pro-solar amendment is largely financed by the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Over the years it has received millions from another nonprofit, the Energy Foundation, which previously has been backed by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. Both the 60 Plus Association and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are social welfare nonprofits regulated by the Internal Revenue Service rather than the Federal Elections Commission, so they do not have to disclose their contributors like the political committees pushing the competing constitutional amendments.

It's bad enough that the pro-solar amendment is being fought by electric utilities that are supporting a strategy of confusion and misdirection with a competing amendment. It's worse that dark money from social welfare groups on both sides is helping fuel the battle over solar energy in the Sunshine State.

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