Groups move to get Fla. solar amendment off Nov. ballot

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, November 4, 2016

Opponents of a controversial Florida ballot initiative for rooftop solar want the state Supreme Court to review the measure again, arguing that its backers intentionally misled justices in order to get it before voters on Nov. 7.

The state’s solar trade group and Floridians for Solar Choice, an umbrella group of mostly clean energy advocates, filed a petition yesterday that also asks for the amendment to be removed from the ballot and for any votes cast in favor of it not be counted.

“Amendment 1 is a deceptive attempt to derail and delay the popularity of customer-owned solar systems in Florida,” said Bill Gallagher, a board member of Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, on a conference call with reporters. “This is a continuation of the attempts by the vested interests to protect their monopoly status and restrict fair trade and competition.”

The ballot initiative aims to ensure that consumers can buy or lease solar panels and enter into long-term agreements to finance them. It also would give local and state governments the right to ensure that non-solar customers aren’t saddled with higher costs for maintaining the grid.

The state’s investor-owned utilities and other linked groups have poured more than $26 million into promoting Amendment 1. And a wide range of consumer, solar and environmental groups have lined up to oppose it.

The groups argue the measure opens the door to utility fees on solar customers. They say the utility-backed amendment creates barriers to market entry rather than making it easier.

FlaSEIA and Floridians for Solar Choice decided to petition the court yesterday after leaked audio tape two weeks ago revealed the utilities’ strategy to mask the controversial ballot initiative as pro-solar (EnergyWire, Oct. 20).

The tape, leaked to the Miami Herald, is of Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Tallahassee. In speaking at an event on Oct. 2, Nuzzo called the amendment “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

The solar groups have not minced words that they think the utilities have been misleading voters on Amendment 1. The audio tape shows that the electric companies and other backers of Amendment 1 deceived the Florida Supreme Court, as well.

“This Court should revisit its ruling, because the misconduct here arose directly in the course of this proceeding and had the intended effect of blunting issues that were or could have been tried,” the filing states.

The group wants the court to scrap its original opinion and order a new briefing on the issues because of “clear proof of the proponents’ deception and misrepresentation concerning the purpose and intent of Amendment 1.”

‘Political grandstanding’

It is unclear how quickly the state’s highest court will move. What’s more, early voting in Florida started Oct. 24, and millions already have cast votes, according to multiple reports.

Consumers for Smart Solar, the group behind Amendment 1, chalked the legal filings up to politics.

“This is just political grandstanding at its best to deter Florida voters from voting in favor of Amendment 1, which simply safeguards consumer rights, consumer protection and consumer fairness as we grow solar in Florida,” said Sarah Bascom, the organization’s spokeswoman.

Consumers for Smart Solar also has distanced itself from the James Madison Institute, saying the group did not participate in drafting Amendment 1 and that they do not know Nuzzo.

“Consumers for Smart Solar has no knowledge of what JMI is claiming. Nobody from JMI either participated in or was asked to participate in the planning or drafting of our amendment or campaign efforts, nor do we know the person who made these comments,” Bascom has said repeatedly.

Such connections are important with what FlaSEIA and Floridians for Solar Choice are arguing in their filing with the court.

The James Madison Institute has issued statements saying Nuzzo “misspoke” about the institute working with Consumers for Smart Solar. E&E News contacted the organization for additional comment yesterday but did not receive a response.

It is clear the two groups have links, however.

Stan Connally, the CEO of Gulf Power Co., sits on the James Madison Institute’s board of directors. The utility is one of several that has donated millions of dollars to the Amendment 1 campaign.

Consumers for Smart Solar also removed references to the institute from its website and social media, according to a Miami Herald story.

Covering bases

FlaSEIA and Floridians for Solar Choice say they are hopeful that Amendment 1 will fail based upon widespread news reports about it. The legal filings are more of an “insurance policy,” they say.

“We believe that acting quickly but reasonably is in the best interest of the public, the best interest and the most efficient interest of the [Supreme Court], and we think it is the fair and correct way to proceed,” said Benedict Kuehne, the attorney representing FlaSEIA and Floridians for Solar Choice.

The groups are using the court’s split 4-3 decision to place Amendment 1 on the ballot, leaning on the sharply worded dissent from Justice Barbara Pariente.

“Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware,” Pariente wrote. “Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida’s major investor-owned utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.”

Backed mostly by the political arm of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Floridians for Solar Choice and the state’s large regulated electric companies have been at odds for years. Indeed, Floridians for Solar Choice had a rooftop solar ballot initiative of its own that the state Supreme Court approved with a 6-1 vote.

The amendment fizzled after not receiving the amount of votes required to go on the ballot.