Industry Giant Eyeing Florida Solar Debate

Jan 16, 2015

Floridians for Solar Choice draws its power from the farthest ends of the political spectrum. Environmentalists, Christian conservatives, Tea Party activists and business groups. The coalition stands united in a common, free-market goal – deregulating solar power.

Coalition Chairman Tory Perfetti.

“This is something that many individuals, right, left and business, have argued for, for many, many years.”

Stephen Smith
Credit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

It’s illegal in Florida to sell solar power, unless you’re a utility.

The coalition wants to change that with a constitutional amendment. Organizers estimate that gathering the 700,000 signatures needed to reach the ballot, countering heavy opposition and defending the measure in court could cost 10 million dollars.

Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, predicts utility companies will be less than supportive.

“We absolutely expect that the utilities will have some issues with this. But as was said, it is our hope that they are in the business to serve the customers, and when customers want something, monopoly utilities should not be in the business of preventing it from happening.”

Florida Power and Light declined comment and is staying quiet so far. Duke Energy released a written statement praising the future of solar power in Florida.

The amendment limits the amount of deregulated solar power to 2 megawatts. That’s about twice the size of a system at the Orange County Convention Center, considered the most powerful of its kind in the Southeast.

Organizers characterize their fight as David versus Goliath.  But the coalition has already recruited some heavy hitters. On board is the Florida Retail Federation and a former chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission.

And organizers are reaching out to industry giant, Solar City. The company has 6,000 employees and installs rooftop residential and commercial solar systems in 15 states --- except Florida.

Solar City chairman Elon Musk is a Silicon Valley tech titan and the man behind Tesla Motors and Space X.

Solar City is watching the debate with great interest, says company spokesman Will Craven.

“Everybody knows that Florida is the sleeping giant of the rooftop solar industry. And there’s an opportunity for leadership for someone in Florida to allow the job growth and consumer choice that is available in many other states across the country.”

Craven wouldn’t say whether SolarCity will jump on the coalition bandwagon.

But it strongly supports the mission, he says. Last year, the solar industry grew by 30,000 jobs in the U.S., about 1.5 percent of all job growth.  Solar City hires 300 new employees each month.

Utility companies have long argued that solar power is still too inefficient to be a cost-effective source of power and that Florida weather is too unpredictable to provide the power needed.

Scott McIntyre, a solar contractor and campaign organizer, couldn’t disagree more.

“East of the Mississippi, the state of Florida gets the most radiant solar energy. It’s a scientific fact. Florida just became the third largest state in the nation, yet we’re eighteenth in terms of the utilization of solar power.  So it’s time for Florida to come out of the solar dark ages.”

Florida may be late to the nation’s solar power party, but there’s no doubt about voters support for environmental measures. Amendment 1, the conservation measure that sets aside 750 million dollars this year for conservation, drew 75 percent of the vote.

The free market argument will be a magnet for conservative voters who have long supported coal and gas and nuclear energy, predicts Tea Party Activist Debbie Dooley. She says solar is much easier to relate to.

“Solar is unique in that it can empower the people. The average person can’t go out and construct a coal-fired plant or a nuclear plant. But they can put solar panels on their rooftop.”

Organizers will first have to collect some 60,000 signatures before they cross the first threshold for supreme court review.