Florida voters say no to misleading solar amendment

Martin Cabrera and Joseph Molina of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade on Friday, November 13, 2015.
Martin Cabrera and Joseph Molina of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions install solar panels at a home in South Miami-Dade on Friday, November 13, 2015. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Florida voters rejected Amendment 1 on Tuesday, the utility-backed measure to limit rooftop solar expansion, after a scrappy, grassroots campaign and last-minute revelations raised doubts about the proponents’ claims that their goal was to expand solar generation.

By 8:30 p.m. EST and with nearly three-quarters of precincts reporting, the vote was almost evenly split, falling short of the 60 percent needed for a state constitutional amendment to become law.

The amendment attempted to use the popularity of solar to embed new language into the Florida Constitution that could have been used as a legal barrier to raise fees on solar users and keep out companies that want to compete with the utilities to provide solar energy generation.

A bipartisan coalition of solar advocates that included dozens of solar manufacturers, tea party groups and environmental organizations formed Floridians for Solar Choice to oppose the measure. They blasted the utility companies’ approach and, within minutes after polls closed in North Florida, proclaimed it a “David v. Goliath” victory that “won against all odds.”

“We defeated one of the most egregious and underhanded attempts at voter manipulation in this state’s history,” said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice.

Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the conflict served to alert voters to the broader issue of solar’s future in Florida.

“Sunshine State voters have spoken clearly: they want more solar friendly policies and the freedom to harness the sun’s power for the benefit of all Floridians and not just the monopoly utilities,” he said.

The defeat is a major blow to the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, who poured more than $20 million into the political committee backing the initiative, Consumers for Smart Solar. A handful of other groups, which were also heavily financed by utilities, spent another $6 million promoting the amendment.

As rooftop solar becomes more affordable, and the market for electricity levels off, the monopoly utilities see solar as a threat to their traditional energy distribution system.

The companies are likely to turn next to the Florida Legislature, or the Public Service Commission, to push through proposals that weaken the state’s net metering laws that allow homeowners to be reimbursed for the excess energy their solar panels generate, and end tax rebates to solar customers. The utilities gave at least $9 million to legislative campaigns and Gov. Rick Scott to influence their outcome.

In recent years, the Republican-led Legislature and the governor-appointed utility board sided with the utility companies by approving requests to expand the fleet of natural gas generating power plants, weaken incentives for customers to save energy, and reduce incentives to install rooftop solar.

Amendment 1 began as a defensive strategy to thwart a rival amendment by solar industry advocates that would have expanded the availability of rooftop solar by allowing for homeowners and businesses to sell their excess generation to third parties, a practice allowed in all but four other states.

That proposal, by Floridians for Solar Choice, never made it to the ballot, but the state’s largest investor-owned utilities — Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric — continued to pursue Amendment 1, anyway.

Entitled — “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” the carefully crafted proposal appeared poised for easy passage a month ago, as the utility-backed political committee spent the summer promoting the amendment as protecting consumers and encouraging solar. Their promotional materials did not include an explanation that the amendment would open the door to new fees and costs to rooftop solar users.

Solar industry advocates argued that instead of expanding rooftop solar generation, the amendment had the potential to make it less economically viable and limit its expansion but, after using up their funds on their petition drive, they had no budget for a “vote no” campaign.

By mid-October, the utility-backed campaign was forced onto the defensive with the surprise arrival of a leaked audio recording. Sal Nuzzo, policy director of the James Madison Institute, which was a supporter of Amendment 1, was recorded conceding that the utilities created the amendment as an act of “political jiu-jitsu” by shrouding it as a pro-solar proposal that would instead “negate” the efforts of solar advocates.

In the audio obtained by the Herald/Times, Nuzzo told an audience of conservative activists in Nashville on Oct. 2 that the amendment was “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”

The comments underscored the claims made by opponents that Amendment 1 was intended to undercut attempts to allow for the expansion of rooftop solar generation in Florida. The fallout was swift and served to buoy efforts of individuals who were trying to get traction for their own, organic “vote no” campaigns.

The story soared on social media, with Elon Musk, the investor, engineer and Tesla and SolarCity owner, tweeting to his 5.8 million followers that the amendment was a “calculated attempt to deceive Florida voters.”

Volunteers conducted phone banks, companies posted information on their business sites, Florida singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett recorded a video and the Clearwater band Stone Marmot recorded a song. They did it at no expense to the “vote no” campaign. Jonathan Taylor, a venture capital investor and online marketing expert from Orlando, personally financed his own internet marketing campaign.

Former U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham held a conference call with reporters to blast the proposal as “deceptive,” unneeded and would “accelerate the decline” of solar power as an energy source in Florida.

With a week to go, FPL and Duke sent another shot of cash into the campaign, bringing FPL’s total for the ballot effort up to more than $8 million — which records indicate could be the largest amount any single entity has ever spent on a ballot initiative in Florida.

Records also show that Duke Energy spent $6.7 million, the second highest amount spent on a single ballot initiative, surpassing the $5.5 million spent in 2014 by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to oppose the legalization of medical marijuana.

Last Friday, the union that represents Florida’s professional firefighters, which had been heavily featured in pro-Amendment 1 ads, withdrew its endorsement of the amendment, claiming that many of its members considered it deceptive and disagreed with the portrayal of solar panels as a fire hazard. The Florida Professional Firefighters also demanded that the political committee stop featuring firefighters in their television and social media ads.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas