Utility Companies Drop Millions On Last-Ditch Effort To Pass Deceptive Florida Solar Initiative

On Tuesday, former Florida Senator and Gov. Bob Graham (D) added his voice to the growing chorus against Florida’s Amendment 1, which asks voters to support a utility-backed initiative that could make it more difficult for the solar industry to develop.

“There is an amendment on the ballot that isn’t what it appears to be,” Graham told reporters.

The amendment has increasingly come under fire in the past few weeks, especially after a recording surfaced of a conservative policy wonk praising the initiative. A vice president at the James Madison Institute referred to Amendment 1 as “political jiu-jitsu,” that used solar’s own popularity as a way to earn support for a measure that would not actually help grow solar in the state.

Even before then, utilities — and conservative groups tied to utilities — had poured more than $22 million into backing the initiative. Last week, the alliance — a group called Consumers for Smart Solar — spent another $3.5 million on ads in the state. Of that, $3 million came from Florida Light & Power and Duke Energy, two major southern utilities.

An audit of donors to Consumers for Smart Solar found that of the only 12 individuals who had donated, 11 had direct ties to the utility industry or one of the conservative groups supporting the organization.

Meanwhile, support for the amendment seems to be falling, as solar supporters have coalesced into an alliance of their own. As recently as late September, the amendment was polling with 66 percent support (a constitutional amendment in Florida requires 60 percent of the vote to go into effect). But a more recent poll put support at only 40 percent — and that poll was conducted in the days before the revelations about intentionally misleading voters.

Supporters of the amendment argue that it is important to enshrine policies that protect non-solar customers from cost-shifting — that is, when some customers have to pay more than others to maintain the grid. Most evidence, though, does not support the theory of cost-shifting, because of the broader benefits of distributed solar generation.

“The economic benefits of net metering actually outweigh the costs and impose no significant cost increase for non-solar customers. Far from a net cost, net metering is in most cases a net benefit — for the utility and for non-solar rate-payers,” the Brookings Institute concluded recently.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Graham put it even more strongly: “There have been a number of studies on [cost-shifting],” he said. “In virtually every instance… the result is, ‘No,’ but even more, ‘Hell no.’”

“The installation of solar saves customers money because it avoids having to build additional generating capacity,” Graham said.

Florida’s Deceptive Solar Amendment… What You Need To Know Before You Vote

Solar companies usually back solar amendments.

But they have all lined up solidly against Florida’s Amendment 1 — “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” which, despite its title, is not about consumer rights or choice. In fact, it would effectively work against solar, by allowing utilities to add special charges for solar customers, the same type of charges that gutted the rooftop solar business in Arizona. It would also make solar leasing more difficult or impossible.

In the Sunshine State, solar energy is pretty popular, but a late September poll showed 66 percent of voters backing Amendment 1, despite the implications.

Why a majority of voters are supporting the measure seems to come down to two key factors: money and misinformation. The utilities and groups backing Amendment 1, which goes to voters November 8, have significantly outspent their opponents, and a coordinated misinformation effort has confused many voters.

Three utilities, Duke Energy, Gulf Power, and Florida Light & Power, have spent nearly $14 million on direct funding for the campaign, which is being led by a group called Consumers for Smart Solar. The nearly $14 million does not including money that utilities have donated to other groups which have, in turn, funded the campaign.

In addition to the money, which has funded a tsunami of TV, radio, and robocall advertising, the backers of Amendment 1 are depending on a solid — and admitted — misinformation campaign.

The attempt to mislead voters started at the very conception of Amendment 1. As soon as it was put on the ballot, the wording of the measure was the subject of a court challenge, led by solar supporters. The state supreme court eventually accepted the measure’s wording, but not before one justice wrote that it was “the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’”

In fact, it’s unclear whether anyone supports the measure who isn’t tied to the utility industry or a conservative group supporting Consumers for Smart Solar, the advocacy group behind the measure.

For over a year, local newspapers and national magazines have been warning Floridians that Amendment 1 is not a pro-solar measure. By now, just weeks before the election, every major newspaper in the state has come out against the measure.

There is a single letter to the editor re-posted on Consumers for Smart Solar’s Facebook page that was not penned by someone who works for the campaign. ThinkProgress contacted the author, Florida resident Virginia Nelsen, who said she no longer supports Amendment 1.

I read [the measure] and it sounded really good to me — and I thought I knew what I was talking about,” Nelsen told ThinkProgress. “Now I’m completely confused.”

Nelsen said no, she is not worried about cost-shifting — which is when the behavior of one group, such as solar users, drives up costs for other users. And while she doesn’t have solar and isn’t planning to get solar, she said she doesn’t think it’s anyone else’s business where you get your electricity. She was also troubled by the fact that the measure is being supported by the utilities, who she said are just trying to protect their monopoly.

“People in Florida are pretty confused,” Nelsen said.

By any measure, there seems to be scant support for Amendment 1 among ordinary Floridians. An audit of donors to Consumers for Smart Solar found that of the only 12 individuals who had given, 11 of them had direct ties to the utility industry or one of the conservative groups supporting the organization.

Over the weekend, another Florida voter, 84-year-old Barbara Waks, called the Miami Herald to say she had just heard about leaked audio from a conservative conference in which a lobbyist appears to brag about how the amendment leverages voters’ support of solar to help the utilities.

“Your article came one day too late,’’ Waks told the paper. “I read it and I almost cried. I’m one of the stupid people who was duped. I voted incorrectly. Is there anything I can do?”

Waks said she voted early. “I’m furious that they would put something on the ballot that would deliberately confuse people and I’m furious at myself,” she said.

A conservative advocacy group for retired Americans, known as 60 Plus, has launched robo-calls supporting the measure featuring Pat Boone. This isn’t the first time the group has gotten involved in an anti-solar campaign. In 2013, 60 Plus became caught up in an investigation in Arizona, after the state’s utilities regulatory commission admitted it was funding groups that were running anti-solar ads.

Billing itself as a “conservative AARP,” 60 Plus has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and to other Koch-funded groups. A spokesperson for the group did not return email or phone messages asking for comment.

We Are Absolutely Living in the Hottest Year Ever Recorded, According to NASA

Last month “was the warmest September in 136 years of modern record-keeping,” reports NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)

This follows a record-setting July and August, which were so hot, they tied each other for the “warmest month ever recorded.”

Whereas GISS director Dr. Gavin Schmidt had been saying there was roughly a 99 percent chance that 2016 would top 2015, he tweeted Monday that “With data now available through September, 2016 annual record (~1.25ºC above late 19th C) seems locked in.”

Indeed, it now appears 2016 will crush the previous record for hottest year, set in 2015, which itself crushed the previous record for hottest year that was set in 2014 — a three-year run never seen before in the 136-year temperature record.

Those who follow climate science know that climatologists have been expecting a “jump” in global temperatures for a while. There is “a vast and growing body of research,” as Climate Central has explained, that “humanity is about to experience a historically unprecedented spike in temperatures.” One 2015 study concluded that we could even see Arctic warming rise an alarming 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade by the 2020s.

And this means the recent bouts of extreme weather “will be routine all too soon, but then even worse records will be set,” as climatologist Kevin Trenberth told me.

There’s only way to stop this chain of ever-more extreme and dangerous records: slash carbon pollution ASAP.

Why Floridians Should Prepare for Tropical Storm Erika, But Not Panic

Tropical Storm Erika was a minimal storm as of Wednesday morning, with maximum sustained winds of just 45 miles per hour. It is cruising toward an encounter with parts of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. The question on every Floridian’s mind, though, is what the storm will do next.

Here’s the bottom line — we don’t know.

Based on the storm’s weak status, a hostile atmosphere that will prevent short-term strengthening of the storm, and computer models that are flipping back and forth like Senator Bernie Sanders’ hair in a strong breeze, forecasters won’t know what this storm is likely to do with confidence for at least another 24 hours — or maybe longer than that.

Some computer model projections are downright frightening, though. That much is true. But this doesn’t mean they’re correct. Take the HWRF model, for example (pronounced “H-Warf”).

This is a computer model that was recently upgraded. It has a high resolution that enables it to simulate the inner workings of an incipient storm more accurately than models that divide the world into larger grid boxes.

It is portraying T.S. Erika as a clear and present threat to parts of the U.S. by consistently showing that the storm — which is currently struggling in a hostile environment with wind shear and dry air trying to rip the storm apart — will intensify rapidly in about three days from now.

The computer model, along with a few others, shows the storm as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane located near Miami or West Palm Beach by Sunday or Monday.

But other computer models disagree strongly. These are also traditionally reliable models, such as the Global Forecast System model, or GFS, which show the storm getting sheered to smithereens before it reaches Florida, thereby posing little threat to the Sunshine State.

Then there’s the middle-of-the-road solution from the European model, which has a reputation for accuracy in many, though not all, situations like this (it was not the most accurate model forecasting Atlantic tropical cyclones last year, the GFS was). The European model is also projecting a more robust storm approaching the Southeast coast by early next week.

So, if you’re sitting in a Miami high-rise condo along the beach right now, or really anywhere from South Florida to North Carolina, it’s time to review your hurricane preparation plan and map out what you’ll do if this storm strengthens and heads your way. The forecast is too low confidence to narrow details down with much specificity, however.

But it never hurts to prepare.

As the National Hurricane Center put it in an understated forecast discussion on Wednesday morning, “The intensity forecast remains very uncertain.” A more accurate discussion might have said, “This storm is giving us serious heartburn.”

As for the storm track, the official Hurricane Center forecast shows the storm approaching Miami as a hurricane by 2 a.m. ET on Monday morning, but the “cone of uncertainty” is quite large that far out.

As Hurricane Center forecasters said Wednesday, “Given the uncertainty, this is a good time to remind users that average NHC track forecast errors over the past five years are 180 miles at day four and 240 miles at day five.”

It can be frustrating for coastal residents to deal with highly uncertain storms like this, but we all make decisions in the face of uncertainty every day. The prudent thing to do right now is to keep a wary eye on this storm, as it’s going to have a few surprises up its sleeve.

Florida ‘Climate Change’ Denial? The Earth Just Experienced the Warmest Winter on Record!

While our “beloved governor” Rick Scott’s climate change term-barring only rivals that of Senator James Inhofe’s infamous climate-denying stunt, in which he held up a snowball on the senate floor (as “proof” that global warming is a hoax) in it’s ridiculousness, both are just, as President Obama described it, disturbing.

They are both extremely narrow-minded, as new data out from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. Looking beyond Florida and D.C., it turns out, Earth as a whole just lived through its warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. Sure enough, the world is on fire, with the eastern U.S. as almost the only exception.

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Florida Officials Ban the Term ‘Climate Change’

The state of Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country, according to scientists. Sea-level rise alone threatens 30 percent of the state’s beaches over the next 85 years.

But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes.

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.

“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’” said Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

Kristina Trotta, another former DEP employee who worked in Miami, said her supervisor told her not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in a 2014 staff meeting. “We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact,” she said.

This unwritten policy went into effect after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011 and appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as the DEP’s director, according to former DEP employees. Gov. Scott, who won a second term in November, has repeatedly said he is not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Vinyard has since resigned. Neither he nor his successor, Scott Steverson, would comment for this article.

“DEP does not have a policy on this,” the department’s press secretary, Tiffany Cowie, wrote in an email. She declined to respond to three other emails requesting more information.

“There’s no policy on this,” wrote Jeri Bustamante, Scott’s spokeswoman, in an email.

But four former DEP employees from offices around the state say the order was well known and distributed verbally statewide.

One former DEP employee who worked in Tallahassee during Scott’s first term in office, and asked not to be identified because of an ongoing business relationship with the department, said staffers were warned that using the terms in reports would bring unwanted attention to their projects.

“We were dealing with the effects and economic impact of climate change, and yet we can’t reference it,” the former employee said.

Former DEP attorney Byrd said it was clear to him this was more than just semantics.

“It’s an indication that the political leadership in the state of Florida is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change present,” Byrd said.

Climate Change Denial

Climate change and global warming refer to the body of scientific evidence showing that the earth’s environment is warming due to human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. It is accepted science all over the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations, wrote in a 2014 report for world policy makers: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” The report’s authors were scientists from 27 countries.

Still, many conservative U.S. politicians say the science is not conclusive and refuse to work on legislation addressing climate change. This type of legislation, such as a carbon tax or policies to encourage more sustainable energy sources, could be costly to established industry.

Among the politicians who refuse to acknowledge climate change is Gov. Scott. During his first campaign for governor in 2010, Scott told reporters who asked about his views on climate change that he had “not been convinced,” and that he would need “something more convincing than what I’ve read.”

In 2014, Scott said he “was not a scientist” when asked about his views on climate change.

In response, a group of Florida scientists requested to meet with Scott and explain the science behind the phenomenon. Scott agreed. The scientists were given 30 minutes.

“He actually, as we were warned, spent 10 minutes doing silly things like prolonged introductions,” geologist and University of Miami professor Harold Wanless recalled. “But we had our 20 to 21 minutes, and he said thank you and went on to his more urgent matters, such as answering his telephone calls and so on. There were no questions of substance.”

Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, had been proactive on climate change, forming a statewide task force and convening a national summit in Miami in 2007. But evidence the issue has fallen out of favor during the Scott administration is apparent.

One example is the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council’s Annual Research Plan, put together by DEP and other state agencies. The 2009-2010 report, published the year before Scott was elected, contains 15 references to climate change, including a section titled “Research Priorities — Climate Change.”

In the 2014-15 edition of the report, climate change is only mentioned if it is in the title of a past report or conference. There is one standalone reference to the issue at the end of a sentence that sources say must have slipped by the censors. “It’s a distinct possibility,” said one former DEP employee.

Instead, terms like “climate drivers” and “climate-driven changes” are used.

Orders From the Top

Christopher Byrd said that he was warned not to use “climate change” and related terms during a 2011 staff meeting shortly after Scott appointed Vinyard as DEP director.

“Deputy General Counsel Larry Morgan was giving us a briefing on what to expect with the new secretary,” Byrd recalled. Morgan gave them “a warning to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea-level rise, and advised us not to use those words in particular.”

Added Byrd: “I did infer from this meeting that this was a new policy, that these words were to be prohibited for use from official DEP policy-making with our clients.”

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2011, Scott tapped Vinyard, a onetime law partner of powerful ex-Sen. John Thrasher, to lead the DEP in spite of a lack of experience with an environmental regulatory agency.

Under Vinyard, the DEP was repeatedly embroiled in controversies, from the suspension of its top wetlands expert after she refused to approve a permit to a failed effort to sell off surplus park land. Longtime employees, including Everglades scientists, were laid off or fired, while top jobs went to people who had been consultants for developers and polluters. Meanwhile the emphasis in regulation shifted from prosecuting violations to helping industry avoid fines.

DEP dismissed Byrd in 2013. His termination letter states: “We thank you for your service to the State of Florida; however, we believe the objectives of the office will be accomplished more effectively by removing you from your position.” Byrd, now in private practice as an environmental lawyer in Orlando, said he was fired because he repeatedly complained the DEP was not enforcing laws to protect the environment.

Although he disagreed with the policy, Byrd said he nonetheless passed the warning down to the various offices he worked with, including the Coral Reef Conservation Program at the Biscayne Bay Environmental Center in Miami.

“As you can imagine with the state of coral reef protection,” Byrd said, “sustainability, sea-level rise, and climate change itself were words we used quite often.”

The Coral Reef Conservation Program is where Jim Harper, a nature writer in Miami, was working as a consultant in 2013. He had a contract to write a series of educational fact sheets about how to protect the coral reefs north of Miami. Climate change was one of the issues Harper and his partner on the project, Annie Reisewitz, wanted to address.

“We were told not to use the term climate change,” Harper said. “The employees were so skittish they wouldn’t even talk about it.”

Reisewitz confirmed Harper’s story. “When we put climate change into the document, they told us they weren’t using the term climate change,” she said.

Harper and Reisewitz completed the assignment as instructed.

A year later, in November 2014, the Coral Reef Conservation Program held a meeting to train volunteers to use a PowerPoint presentation about the threats coral reefs faced. Harper attended the meeting, held at DEP’s Biscayne Bay office in Miami. Doug Young, president of the South Florida Audubon Society and a member of the Broward County Climate Change Task Force, also attended.

Two DEP employees, Ana Zangroniz and Kristina Trotta, showed the presentation to the volunteers and then asked if anyone had a question.

“I told them the biggest problem I have was that there was absolutely no mention of climate change and the affect of climate change on coral reefs,” Young said.

He continued: “The two young women, really good people, said, ‘We are not allowed to show the words, or show any slides that depicted anything related to climate change.’”

Young and Harper said they could not participate if climate change was not mentioned. “The women kept saying, ‘Work with us; we know you are frustrated,’” Harper said.

On Nov. 19, 2014, the DEP’s Zangroniz wrote Harper and Young an email stating she had talked to her manager about their concerns.

“Unfortunately at this time,” she wrote, “we can’t make any alterations or additions to the presentation. … If you do choose to continue as a volunteer, we would have to request that you present the information as is. If you choose to add in an additional presentation or speaker that addresses climate change and coral reefs, there would have to be a very clear split between the two.”

Trotta left her position as a field and administrative assistant in January. She told FCIR that when it came to scrubbing the term “climate change” from projects, she was following orders. Those orders came from Regional Administrator Joanna Walczak during a staff meeting in the summer of 2014.

“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or even ‘sea-level rise,’ ” said Trotta. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding.’”

When staff protested, Trotta said, “the regional administrator told us that we are the governor’s agency and this is the message from the governor’s office. And that is the message we will portray.”

The order pained her, said Trotta, who has a master’s degree in marine biology, because she believes climate change is an imminent threat to Florida.

Walczak declined to comment citing DEP policy.

While state officials are still not using the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming,’ any prohibition of the term “sea-level rise” seems to have ended. In a February press conference, Scott unveiled $106 million in his proposed budget to deal with the effects of rising oceans. But $50 million of that is for a sewage plant in the Keys, and $25 million is for beach restoration, which critics say is hardly a comprehensive plan to protect homes, roads and infrastructure.

Wanless, the University of Miami professor, said the state government needs to acknowledge climate change as settled science and as a threat to people and property in Florida.

“You have to start real planning, and I’ve seen absolutely none of that from the current governor,” he said.

In Florida it will be hard to plan for climate change, he said, if officials can’t talk about climate change.

“It’s beyond ludicrous to deny using the term climate change,” Wanless said. “It’s criminal at this point.”