Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Solar power battle in Florida makes strange bedfellows

The electric power monopolies have found themselves up against quite the disparate coalition in the battle over who gets to harvest and sell solar energy in Florida.

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action along with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Physicians for Social Responsibility are allied with outfits one might normally expect on their enemies list. Like the Tea Party Network, the Florida Retail Federation, the Libertarian Party of Florida, the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, the Christian Coalition of America — groups that see busting up monopoly control of solar power as a free enterprise issue.

Calling themselves Floridians For Solar Choice, the alliance is circulating a petition under the clunky name “Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply” that would put the matter on the statewide ballot in 2016. The constitutional amendment would undo Florida’s prohibition against independent solar producers from selling juice directly to consumers.

Of course, the ballot initiative hasn’t been well received by the likes of Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, which see solar power potentially as disruptive to their business model as cellphone technology has been to old-fashioned telephone providers.

But they have their own strange allies. Like the Florida NAACP.

Of course, everyone, in public, embraces solar power. Who’s against sunshine? It’s the caveats that matter.

The utilities love solar but only if they can levy maintenance fees on customers who generate solar power and sell the excess back to the power companies — known as “net metering” (and only if those consumers are barred from selling electricity to other consumers). Otherwise, the argument goes, charges for the cost of maintaining the electrical grid will show up on the bills of folks who can’t afford their own solar panels.

The Florida NAACP has embraced that very controversial argument — leading critics to wonder whether the stand might have something to do with the utilities’ donations. Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida NAACP, in a letter to her membership last month, dismissed net metering as “an accounting gimmick” that would allow rooftop solar owners to exploit the grid while dodging maintenance costs. “And guess who gets to pick up those costs? You do in the form of higher electric bills.”

Obi Nweze, employing a bit of hyperbolic reasoning, argued that net metering would mean “someone is getting wealthy off of a subsidy that everyone else has the privilege of paying.”

The Florida chapter’s stand seems at odds with the national board of the NAACP and other civil rights groups that have embraced solar energy.

Meanwhile, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which gets a nice donation every year from an electric utility association, has passed a resolution against net metering suspiciously close to the draft offered by the pro-utility, pro-fossil fuel American Legislative Exchange Council.

In California, the Los Angeles Times reported that utilities have similarly enlisted Hispanic groups in their fight against net metering.

Storm clouds loom over solar energy issues. Storm clouds, strange alliances and peculiar new enemies.