State Politics

Mystery surrounds largest donor to Florida solar power ballot initiative

In this May 13, 2015 photo, some of the more than 37,000 solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island. Industry experts rank Florida third in the nation in rooftop solar energy potential but 13th in the amount of solar energy generated. Renewable energy experts and the solar industry say Florida lags behind because the state is one of only four that require solar energy to be sold exclusively by utilities.
In this May 13, 2015 photo, some of the more than 37,000 solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island. Industry experts rank Florida third in the nation in rooftop solar energy potential but 13th in the amount of solar energy generated. Renewable energy experts and the solar industry say Florida lags behind because the state is one of only four that require solar energy to be sold exclusively by utilities. AP

The biggest donor yet to a solar power ballot initiative backed by utility companies is a group that has never given campaign donations before in Florida and will not disclose its supporters.

A group calling itself “Let’s Preserve the American Dream” gave $200,000 to the utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar, which was created seven months after a group supported by solar power companies and environmental organizations created Floridians for Solar Choice.

It’s the latest turn of events in the duel between two solar power initiatives with very different goals. Floridians for Solar Choice — which is backed by solar power companies and the League of Women Voters — wants to let out-of-state solar power companies sell solar power to homeowners and businesses in Florida, contending that the state’s existing utilities are not doing enough to promote that form of energy.

On the flip side, Consumers for Smart Solar is pushing an amendment that would in effect continue to allow only utilities regulated in Florida to provide solar power, and without competition.

Consumers for Smart Solar has relied almost entirely on existing public utilities in Florida for financial support. Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric Company have given at least $160,000 each to the campaign.

The $200,000 from Let’s Preserve the American Dream is the largest donation yet. But who is behind that group is a mystery. Consumers for Smart Solar, initially in campaign finance documents, identified the group as a political action committee based at a mail box at a UPS store two miles from the Florida State Capitol Building.

The PAC’s chairman is Ryan D. Tyson, a Tallahassee lobbyist who is also vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, a pro-business group partly supported by state utility companies. But according to campaign finance reports, Tyson’s PAC did not report giving any money to Consumers for Smart Solar, despite the group’s assertion it did. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Let’s Preserve the American Dream gave no campaign donations in September. But Consumers For Smart Solar reported getting the check for $200,000 on Sept. 30.

After the discrepancy was pointed out by the Herald/Times, Tyson called Consumers for Smart Solar and instructed the group to change its report to reflect the money came from a different group with a similar name: Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc., which has no record of donating money in Florida before.

Tyson said Consumers for Smart Solar made a mistake in the way it reported the donation.

“Consumers for Smart Solar unfortunately reported the contribution from Let’s Preserve the American Dream as coming from a PAC,” Tyson said. “That is incorrect.”

He said the donation came from a tax-exempt company he created with a similar name: Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc. While the names are nearly identical, he said the new company, which was officially named in February, is a “social welfare” organization that has a 501(c)4 designation, which exempts it from disclosing donors. If it were labeled a political action committee, it would have to disclose the names.

The tactic partly mirrors what the other solar amendment supporters have done. Floridians for Solar Choice has received almost 90 percent of its nearly $1.3 million from one group: the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which promotes solar power initiatives throughout the southeastern United States. Southern Alliance doesn’t report names of its individual donors.

But Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said while the vehicles are similar, the goals are very different. He alleges Let’s Preserve the American Dream is simply a front group hiding more donations from utility companies. Tyson rejects that charge, declaring it is a social welfare organization that plans to “educate citizens on the societal benefits of sound economic, regulatory and legal policies.”

Smith said the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy uses the 501(c)4 designation as a way to protect its donors from potential conflict with power companies in Florida.

Meanwhile, whether either of the amendments will even be on the ballot is still in question.

Floridians for Solar Choice received initial Florida Supreme Court approval for its ballot language, but is still 480,000 signatures short of getting on the ballot. Consumers for Smart Solar has yet to get its amendment approved by the Supreme Court and still needs nearly 570,000 signatures to make the ballot.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

Top 5 donors to Floridians for Solar Choice

1. $1.1 million from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Knoxville, Tenn.

2. $50,000 from Barbara Stiefel, Coral Gables environmentalist

3. $25,000 from Infinite Energy, Gainesville

4. $25,000 from Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Buford, Ga., consultants

5. $10,000 each from Williamson Automotive, a Miami car dealership, and Leverette F. Lynn, a retired doctor from Miami

Top 5 donors to Consumers for Smart Solar

1. $200,000 from Let’s Preserve the American Dream Inc., a Tallahassee-based company

2. $180,000 from Gulf Power, a northwest Florida utility company

3. $175,000 from Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility company

4. $175,000 Tampa Electric Company

5. $160,000 Duke Energy

Source: Florida Division of Elections

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