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.

Rooftop Solar Could Provide Almost 40 Percent of US Electricity

When it comes to personally investing in green energy, installing solar panels on your roof is one of the more practical options available to us regular people. Wind turbines and hydro power stations are awesome, but they’re not something the average suburban or metropolitan consumer really has much to do with up close. Solar technology, on the other hand, is much more personally accessible.

But how much of a contribution can solar really make to the electricity grid? According to a new analysis by the US Department of Energy, it’s a pretty big chunk. If all of the available roof space that could be practically fitted with solar panels were maxed out, it could make up the equivalent of 39 percent of the nation’s electricity.

This amount, which adds up to a technical potential of 1,118 gigawatts (GW) of capacity and 1,432 terawatt-hours (TWh) of annual energy generation, could take a large burden off our reliance on fossil-fuel-based power – but obviously, it’d be a massive undertaking to fit out all that available roof space.

To come up with the estimate, scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) used light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data to calculate the suitability of rooftops for hosting solar panels – aka rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems – in 128 cities across the US, then extrapolated from there.

Within the cities examined, the researchers found 83 percent of small buildings have a suitable location for installation of solar panels. But when they analysed each building’s capacity to hold a PV system on their roof, only 26 percent passed the grade.

While only about a quarter of most small buildings’ roofs could practically be used for solar panels, there are a whole lot of them across the US, which means this type of building could actually provide the greatest combined technical potential compared to other kinds of structures.

The upshot is that people’s houses could make the biggest contribution to solar power generation, with all small buildings in the US combined accounting for about two-thirds of the country’s total rooftop technical potential. Medium and large buildings combined would make up the other third.

But the scientists say we could even go beyond this, because obviously the combined rooftop area across the nation, while massive, is surrounded by all kinds of other potential solar-absorbing spaces and surfaces.

“It is important to note that this report only estimates the potential from existing, suitable rooftops, and does not consider the immense potential of ground-mounted PV,” said NREL senior energy analyst Robert Margolis. “Actual generation from PV in urban areas could exceed these estimates by installing systems on less suitable roof space, by mounting PV on canopies over open spaces such as parking lots, or by integrating PV into building facades.”

If you want to find out about the potential energy generation your house’s roof could provide, and learn more about the kinds of costs involved in installing a solar system, check out Google’s Project Sunroof, which figures out how much solar energy is hitting your rooftop based on satellite imagery.

Awesome.