Leaked audio raises temperature in Fla. solar fight

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 21, 2016

Backers of a rooftop solar initiative railed against Florida’s largest electric utilities yesterday after leaked audio tape revealed their strategy to mask a controversial ballot initiative as pro-solar.

A wide range of solar advocates, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist, attacked Florida’s regulated electric companies for deliberately misleading voters to support what’s known as Amendment 1.

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

It is the second proposed constitutional amendment designed to boost rooftop solar in the Sunshine State to make headlines. The first, from an umbrella group backed mostly by SACE’s political arm, fizzled after it could not secure the number of signatures required to appear on one of Florida’s ballots.

That group, Floridians for Solar Choice, said it would focus on getting the measure on the ballot in 2018. In the meantime, the group has thrown all of its muscle behind defeating Amendment 1. That measure is backed by the state’s electric companies, who have spent $21 million in hopes of getting it passed on Nov. 8.

If the money alone wasn’t enough to show that Florida Power & Light Co., Duke Energy Florida, TECO Energy Inc. and Southern Co.’s Gulf Power subsidiary were involved, an audio tape solidified it. 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.

Speaking at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville on Oct. 2, Nuzzo detailed the strategy that the electric companies used to create and finance Amendment 1. According to the Miami Herald‘s account, 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.”

SACE and other solar advocates called a news conference early yesterday afternoon after a story about the audio tape appeared on the front page of the Miami Heraldthat morning.

“We are extraordinarily enraged by what we have learned in the past 24 hours about this audiotape that was leaked,” said Stephen Smith, SACE’s executive director.

He and others referred to the utilities’ efforts as “voter fraud.”

“We now have clear, clear evidence that the utilities are misleading Floridians on an issue that has extremely strong insider support,” said Pamela Goodman, with the Florida League of Women Voters.

“Amendment 1 is the con job that we have said it has been. It’s a scam,” Goodman said. “It’s very, very dangerous — not only for the voters of Florida, but for the consumers of Florida.”

The audio tape only escalates the ongoing, bitter fight between SACE and the state’s regulated electric companies, particularly FPL. The two have fought for years in Tallahassee over how to develop the state’s solar industry.

The state lets homes and businesses that have panels sell back any excess electricity at a 1-to-1 retail rate, something that few Southeastern states allow.

But Florida also prohibits consumers from entering into long-term financing arrangements with private solar companies, arguing that if monthly payments are tied to electricity output, then that company is illegally acting as a utility.

Consumers for Smart Solar issued two news releases yesterday. Neither addressed the audio tape or the Miami Herald story. Instead it reiterated the merits of Amendment 1 and listed the wide range of groups that support it.

“Amendment 1 does not preclude or hinder any approach to solar. It merely ensures that whatever approach to solar Florida takes, government will be able to protect consumers from scams, rip-offs and unsafe solar installations,” said Dick Batchelor, the group’s co-chairman.

An FPL spokesman referred questions about Nuzzo’s comments to Consumers for Smart Solar, which has distanced itself from James Madison Institute’s (JMI) policy director.

“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,” said Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar, in a statement emailed to E&E News. “JMI does not speak for our effort, and whatever this individual is claiming or taking credit for or claiming with in regard to Amendment 1 is simply not true.”

Voters also overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that would remove ad valorem, or value-based, taxes on renewable energy projects for commercial property. This would lower the overall cost of those projects for businesses, including the state’s electric companies.

But if Amendment 1 passes, tariffs and fees are likely to follow for rooftop solar customers, taking some of the steam out of that measure.

The state Legislature is also expected to entertain a bill that would make changes to the net-metering policy. Details are unclear, but the bill likely would leave it up to the state Public Service Commission to implement the changes.

Reporter Hannah Hess contributed to this story.