Fred Grimm

Leaked audio tape exposes duplicity behind solar amendment

In this file photo, workmen install install a solar panel array for a whole-house solar power source at a home in Pinecrest.
In this file photo, workmen install install a solar panel array for a whole-house solar power source at a home in Pinecrest. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The leaked recording should have been political dynamite. Except it only confirmed what solar energy advocates already knew: Florida’s electric utility monopolies had engineered a ballot initiative composed of mendacious doublespeak.

Amendment One, an unseemly misnomer entitled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” was no more than “political jiu-jitsu,” explained Sal Nuzzo, vice president for policy at the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based right-wing think tank funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, Exxon, and utilities like Gulf Power, Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy.

Nuzzo was recorded on Oct. 2 explaining to a gathering of utility execs in Nashville how they could employ low-down deception to thwart competition from solar power. The audio tape, first reported by the Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas, captured Nuzzo suggesting that utilities apply “a little bit of political jiu-jitsu” by pushing legislation and constitutional referendums that “use the language of promoting solar.” The strategy, of course, is to mislead voters into thinking they’re approving a initiative that promotes solar power when the actual effect would be quite different.

Nuzzo perfectly described the game his utility benefactors have been playing in Florida. Our monopolies created a grass-roots-sounding outfit, Consumers for Smart Solar, and funded their own constitutional amendment petition drive. Originally, the Consumers for Smart Solar initiative was designed to confuse voters who might have intended to support a sure-nuff ballot proposal that “Limits or prevents government and electric utility imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity.”

Floridians for Solar Choice, a coalition of environment groups, libertarians and solar industry entrepreneurs, had wanted consumers to have the right to lease solar panels from independent contractors with limited upfront costs. And to allow shopping centers to install rooftop solar panels and sell the electricity to tenants in the complex.

Nuzzo warned the utility executives that about 70 percent of the public, if left to their own devices, would cast votes favoring measures that removed the legal obstacles to solar power. And it wasn’t just a bunch of environmentalists pushing this stuff, he warned. The Tea Party backed solar power. Along with local business groups.

So how do you stymie a threat so damn popular? With political jiu-jitsu, which is a nice way of describing out-and-out deception.

“Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware,” Justice Barbara Pariente warned last summer in a particularly acerbic dissent when the Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3 to allow the stalking horse amendment onto the ballot.

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

The cleverly worded measure, sounding so very pro-solar, guaranteed consumers “the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” Except, that’s a right Floridians already enjoy.

Voters probably won’t grasp the impact of another clause in the ballot initiative, ensuring “that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”

Who decides how much the utilities get to charge solar panels users for access to the electrical grid? The utilities and their rubber stamp flunkies on the Public Service Commission, who can’t abide a bunch of independent solar energy producers cutting into utility profit margins.

Yet, a Supreme Court majority decided that the text of the utility industry’s amendment wasn’t misleading and didn’t “constitute political or emotional rhetoric.” Of course, the justices hadn’t heard Nuzzo explaining to utility executives how to use misleading language to trick voters, else they might have reached a different conclusion.

“We now have clear, clear evidence that the utilities are misleading Floridians, totally misleading them, on an issue [solar energy] that has strong voter support,” Pamela Goodman of the Florida League of Women Voters told the News Service of Florida, after Mary Ellen exposed Nuzzo’s lesson in duplicity.

Ironically, the petition drive for a real pro-solar amendment, the initiative backed by Floridians for Solar Choice, failed to receive enough signatures from registered voters to make the November ballot. But the utilities’ stalking horse measure funded by the utilities will be there.

To pass, Amendment One needs to confuse at least 60 percent of the voters.