Will The Sun Also Rise For Startup Initiative?

Jul 17, 2015

Consumers for Smart Solar rolled out its ballot initiative this week, hoping to overshadow the competition. But Floridians for Solar Choice, which has been collecting signatures since January, says the upstart is another attempt by the big utilities to pull the plug on an emerging industry.

There's a new kid on the block when it comes to the battle for putting a solar-power amendment on the 2016 ballot. Industry backed Consumers for Smart Solar launched its bid this week.

Pull up the Consumers for Smart Solar website, and an upbeat video talks about an imaginary power customer named Susan.

“And that’s where our amendment comes in. It protects the consumer, like Susan, from having to pick up the tab for big solar Inc.”

In a nutshell, that’s how the group hopes to drum up the 683,149 signatures it needs to get on the November, 2016 ballot. It wants to convince voters that solar customers won’t have any place to go if solar generators rip them off.

But what the highly polished presentation doesn’t mention is the author of the proposed amendment – Florida Power and Light, one of the state’s largest utilities. Solar Choice’s Stephen Smith.

“They have admitted that they have been working with this group and that they’re going to provide money for them and all this other stuff so it’s pretty clear what’s going on here.”

When Solar Choice launched its bid in Tallahassee, Smith predicted his group would need 10 million dollars to raise signatures, defend the amendment in court and go to the airwaves to fight off attacks.

By June, the group raised about $500,000 dollars and finds itself in a two-front war.

Florida Power and Light and other utilities are asking state Supreme Court justices to block Solar Choice from the ballot. Utility attorney Barry Richard argues the Solar Choice amendment won’t allow power companies to charge solar customers for stay on the traditional grid.

“If you read this amendment, it can be interpreted to say, no, they can’t be charged for that separately everybody else has to pay, too.”

And traditional power customers will be stuck with the bill, says Jim Kallinger, a former legislator who is leading the charge for Consumers. Solar customers can’t leave the grid because the sun doesn’t shine at night or on cloudy days.

“If this will potentially increase those rates to subsidize something that the free market has mot embraced because it’s not efficient, well, we just think that’s wrong.”

Kallinger is a convincing spokesman. But he’s had a dramatic change of heart. Here he is in May, when he was staunchly opposed to governing by constitutional amendment.

“You know, if it’s such a great idea, why don’t we run it through our Legislature and let my and your elected official weigh in and have a conversation about it.”

Solar Choice says solar companies have no other place to go. State law doesn’t allow the unregulated sale of electricity and lawmakers turn their backs.

But former PSC commissioner Matthew Carter, who is backing Consumers, turns the argument on its head. He says the PSC’s job is to handle customer complaints, like he did when Florida was racked by hurricanes in 2004-2005.

“I spent countless hours in the emergency operations center fielding calls from people saying hey, we want our power turned back on, we got a sick kid in the house.”

Mike Antheil, head of a solar industry association that supports Solar Choice, calls that a scare tactic. There’s nothing in his amendment that leaves solar companies free to cheat customers, he says.

“And we know better than anyone that the monopoly utilities will stop at pretty much nothing to slow or eliminate the growth of distributive rooftop solar owned by businesses or citizens.”

The next battle comes September 1st, when t he Supreme Court hears oral arguments.