December 01, 2016

Report: Utilities and fossil fuel industry are orchestrating a campaign to oppose solar expansion

Blocking the Sun reportWith Florida now a battleground over the future of solar energy, "utility interest groups and fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks is providing funding, model legislation and political cover for anti-solar campaigns,'' according to a new report funded by environmental activists and think tanks that are opposing the effort. 

The report, “Blocking the Sun,” released by the Environment Florida Research & Policy Center, singles out Florida's four largest utilities -- Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric -- as being among 17 entities nationwide that are working aggressively "to block solar policies."

The report was written by the Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center, two environmental think tanks backed by pro-solar and anti-climate change activists. The report says it was funded by several individuals that are who are listed in the report's opening pages. 

Coming after the pro-solar groups' defeat of the utility-backed Amendment 1, the missive is a sign that the battle over solar power in Florida is still young. 

It also come out the same day that SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla Motors, Inc., announced that it has launched residential solar service in Orlando and is hiring sales staff and installers at its Clermont offices. The company said it plans to expand to additional areas of the state in the coming months.

The debate has already begun over how the issue will be framed. The utilities, with the help of a report by the conservative James Madison Institute and advocacy by the Florida Chamber of Commerce's Tallahassee leaders, have tried to make the case that as more individuals and businesses install solar panels, the cost of providing access to the grid will be divided among fewer paying customers with those left on the grid "subsidizing" others.

Their greatest worry: a “utility death spiral” triggered by customers who abandon the grid as the price of solar panels and energy storage technology declines. 

In some states, "utilities have responded to the challenge posed by solar energy by working constructively with regulators and other decision-makers to develop new business models that maintain consumers’ access to an affordable, reliable electric grid,'' the report says. In others -- like Florida -- they have fought to limit customer-generated solar by attempting to pass the failed Amendment 1 and now want regulators to rollback net metering policies that encourage solar investment. 

The report attempts to provide a road map for the source of much of that information by detailing the role of several organizations have had in the elaborate campaign to limit customer-owned solar expansion throughout the nation:

  • The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group that represents U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on model legislation to repeal state renewable electricity standards and run an anti-solar public relations campaigns.
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has drafted anti-net metering resolutions and legislation.
  • The Koch brothers, who have funneled tens of millions of dollars through a network of opaque nonprofits, including the 60-Plus organization which spent more than $1 million to promote the utility-backed Amendment 1 in Florida.
  • Americans for Prosperity (AFP) which has run "misinformation campaigns against net metering and other solar policies."
  • The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a Houston-based front group for the fossil fuel industry.

Environment Florida proposes several recommendations for legislators and state regulators to push back. It urges them to resist caps on net metering, added surcharges and tariffs on solar customers and to reject attempts to roll back renewable electricity standards.

Instead of focusing on the "subsidy" narrative pushed by the utility companies, it also wants regulators to calculate the value of distributed solar energy to the grid, encourage community solar projects and they want to polices that allow for "strong net metering and interconnection standards, which enable many customers to meet their own electricity needs with solar power." 


November 04, 2016

Firefighters withdraw endorsement of Amendment 1, demand proponents pull TV ads

Firefighters withdraw A1

Proponents of Amendment 1 lost a crucial supporter Friday as the union representing the state's professional firefighters withdrew their endorsement of the utility-backed amendment and demanded that the political committee pull its television ads featuring firefighters. Story here. 

"It is clear to the elected executive board of this organization that our membership would prefer to pursue any future firefighter safety regulations related to the still developing alternative energy industry through legislative or rulemaking action, as opposed to a constitutional amendment that many believe to be misleading,'' the Florida Professional Firefighters said in a press release issued late Friday.

Firefighters had been heavily featured in hundreds of television ads run by the Consumers for Smart Solar, the political committee financed by the state's largest electric companies. The ads urged voters to support Amendment 1 and implied that rooftop solar panels could be a fire hazard.

But after weeks of complaints from members, the executive board reversed its endorsement, suggesting that the amendment was misleading.

“We assure Florida’s firefighters that their safety remains our top priority and this decision, by no means, indicates that we will be any less vigilant in advocating for their health and well-being when it comes to rapidly evolving, environmentally friendly, and sometimes confusing alternative energy systems,” said Jim Tolley, FPF president.

Richard C. Silvestri, a retired fire captain for the City of Miami, was among those who complained to Tolley about their endorsement of the amendment. He said saying that portraying solar panels as a fire hazard was having "aided and abetted one of the biggest scams on Floridians in the history of the state."

Silvestri has recently installed solar panels on his home in Fort Pierce and he said that he process required numerous permits and inspections -- including by Florida Power & Light -- to be hooked up to the grid.

"I am in an expert's position to say the procedure followed was above and beyond,'' he wrote in the letter to Tolley, which he provided to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times. "The only way these solar installations could be anymore unsafe than the thousands of other electrical and electronic devices in use on the grid either in businesses, homes, factories, marinas, airports, etc. would be if they are installed without permits."

He strongly urged the union to reverse their endorsement.

"If this amendment passes you will have done a major disservice to the public, to at least one retired firefighter and I am sure there are others, and you have aided and abetted one of biggest scams on Floridians in the history of the State,'' Silvestri wrote. We are engaged in a David vs Goliath battle and having a phony firefighter on TV ads hoodwinking the public that they should support this fraud is so repulsive to me, words do not suffice, not to mention the harm is does to us in attempting to defeat this.”

In the ad, paid for by the utility-backed committee, Wayne Bernoska, Jr, a member of the firefighters union, declares that "in my job, I see a lot of fires that could have been stopped before they were started. That’s why Florida’s firefighters support Amendment 1. Amendment 1 does solar the right way."

PolitiFact Florida has recently debunked similar safety claims made by the Amendment 1 campaign which suggested in web ads that Amendment 1 "protects Florida seniors from scams and rip-offs." PolitiFact concluded the amendment doesn’t alter current consumer protection laws and, if there were no amendment, the effect on consumer laws and regulations would be the same.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for the Consumers for Smart Solar political committee, said they have asked television stations to pull the ads as requested by the firefighters.

"While we are disappointed that they no longer want these policies enacted through a constitutional amendment, we are glad that Florida firefighters continue to be on record in support of policies that encourage solar,'' she said.

Opponents of Amendment 1 welcomed the news of the firefighters’ change of position.

"We have known all along that the utilities drawing beloved firefighters into their scam to advance Amendment 1 was beyond shameful,'' said Stephen Smith of the Floridians for Solar Choice, the political committee supported by the solar industry which is opposing Amendment 1. "Thousands of firefighters across the state have told us they are 'Voting No on 1.' This is all the more reason for every citizen of Florida to do the same.”

Here's the text of the release:

Continue reading "Firefighters withdraw endorsement of Amendment 1, demand proponents pull TV ads" »

Amendment 1 proponents ask court to reject attempts to invalidate the solar proposal as misleading

Solar panels
Lawyers for the political committee sponsored by the state's largest electric utilities argued in court documents filed Friday that am attempt to get the Florida Supreme Court to invalidate the proposed Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot is based on a "false premise" and an effort "to garner more media attention in the days before the election."

The motion, filed by Consumers for Smart Solar, asks the court to reject the argument by solar opponents that recent claims by a researcher working with amendment proponents is proof that the amendment is a fraudulent attempt to deceive voters. 

The article by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times included links to a leaked audio recording of Sal Nuzzo, the policy director of the James Madison Institute, who told an audience on Oct. 2 that JMI conducted research on behalf of Consumers for Smart Solar in an attempt to establish the foundation for the utility companies' argument that solar users were subsidizing non-solar users. He also claimed that Amendment 1 was an attempt at "political jiu jitzu,"  designed to "negate" the efforts of the solar advocates to expand rooftop solar in Florida.

The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and Floridians for Solar Choice, the pro-solar political committee opposing the amendment, filed two lawsuits Wednesday asking the court to reopen the case involving the the ballot language claiming that proponents “withheld relevant and material information as to the objective and intended purpose of the amendment, and thereby misled this Court (and is now misleading the public) as to the adequacy of the ballot title and summary presented to the voters.” 

But in the response filed Friday, Raoul G. Cantero, lawyer for the utility-backed political committee sponsoring the amendment, argues the lawsuit "is based on the false premise that a ballot summary is misleading if it does not state the political motivations of the sponsor,'' said "But this Court has repeatedly held that a ballot summary cannot address the sponsor’s political motivations."

Cantero cited the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times article used by the amendment opponents: "The only new information – a newspaper article alleging that “the sponsors of Amendment 1 ‘attempted to deceive voters’” (Mot. at 2) – is not only unsubstantiated but directly contradicted by the Sponsor’s statements in the very same article. In earlier filings with the Court, the Sponsor made its motivations clear: Amendment 1 is designed to protect the use of solar energy in Florida, but would ensure that government can manage its growth to protect the broader public interest."

Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice, attempts to do in court documents what an Amendment 1 spokesperson has done in written statements: distance the proponents from Nuzzo.

"Instead of engaging in a policy debate, the Motion attaches newspaper articles that cite statements by someone named Sal Nuzzo, of the James Madison Institute, about the alleged political motivations behind Amendment 1,'' he writes. 

"Yet, nothing in the articles indicates that Mr. Nuzzo speaks for Consumers for Smart Solar, other than assertions of guilt by association. To the contrary, the articles quote representatives of both Consumers for Smart Solar and the James Madison Institute denying that Mr. Nuzzo or his organization had been hired, funded, or asked to do anything by the Sponsor in the conception, development or drafting of Amendment 1 (Consumers for Smart Solar is prepared to submit affidavits to that effect if necessary). Mr. Nuzzo may have his own motivations for supporting Amendment 1, but he is not the Sponsor.

"And it is, frankly, reckless to accuse Consumers for Smart Solar of “fraud or other misconduct on the Court” based on newspaper articles citing the statements of a third party."

Cantero quotes Justice Barbara Pariente, whose strongly-worded dissent called the amendment a "wolf in sheep's clothing" for its attempt to mislead voters into thinking it is a pro-solar initiative and refers to her comments that the ballot summary must not include political motivations. 

"To ascribe one primary motive to advocates of a measure, and then require that this motive be conveyed in a seventy-five word ballot summary, is impractical if not impossible,'' Pariente wrote. "I conclude that the task of informing the public as to the possible motivations behind the proposed amendment and its practical effects must fall on the proponents and opponents of the measure."

Cantero also argues that proponents of the amendment fail to specify the fraud that they claim. "The Motion alleges no facts specifying a fraud by the Sponsor; it only attaches newspaper articles citing statements by an individual who does not speak for the Sponsor." 

"In truth, this Motion is an attempt to use the judicial process to garner more media attention in the days before the election. The articles attached to the Motion were published more than two weeks before the Motion was filed; and the Motion was filed less than a week before the election, in conjunction with a press conference announcing it."

Photo credit: Associated Press

November 03, 2016

PolitiFact: Amendment 1 backers' misleading claim about scams

Organizers for a proposed constitutional amendment about electricity generated by solar power have told voters their proposal would safeguard consumers — especially seniors.

Consumers for Smart Solar, the utility-backed group behind Amendment 1, has spent millions to promote the measure in commercials, mailers and web ads.

"Amendment 1 protects Florida seniors from scams and rip-offs," claimed one ad on YouTube Oct. 19, 2016.

We wanted to know how the amendment would keep seniors from being targeted. When we shined a light on the measure, we found Amendment 1 doesn’t provide any new protections, for seniors or anyone else.

Keep reading Joshua Gillin's fact-check from PolitiFact Florida.