Unusual coalition seeks ballot measure to expand solar power

Solar facility

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Tea partiers, Libertarians, conservative Christians, Florida's largest retail association, and clean energy advocates announced Wednesday that they are joining a petition drive aimed at expanding the use of solar energy in Florida.

Members of the unusual coalition said they want to take the issue to the voters because they are frustrated the Legislature has done little to advance use of the clean energy in the state that gets the most solar radiant energy east of the Mississippi River. They blamed it on the millions of dollars power companies pump into political donations and lobbying.

The group will try to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that would allow private companies not regulated as utilities to sell up to two megawatts of solar energy to customers. The solar facilities would have to be on the same or adjacent property as the customer's.

"The monopoly utilities are using their financial influence to corrupt the political process here in Tallahassee," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "When utilities want something and they use their money to stop it, that's not good public policy."

A report by the government watchdog group Integrity Florida found that the state's four largest power companies contributed more than $18 million to political parties and candidates between 2004 and 2012 and spent more than $12.5 million on lobbyists between 2007 and 2013.

A spokesman for Florida Power & Light, Florida's largest power company, wouldn't comment on the petition drive. Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), didn't directly address the petition, but said in an email, "Solar power and other renewable resources will be an important part of Florida's energy future. We are committed to energy policies where solar options are fair and beneficial to all of our customers. "

The alliance also includes the tea party-backed Conservatives for Energy Freedom, the Christian Coalition of America, the Florida Retail Federation and other clean energy groups.

"I support coal, I support nuclear, I support gas, I support solar, I support biofuel, I support all energy forms," said Debbie Dooley, who helped start Georgia's largest tea party group. "We need energy choice and freedom."

Will Craven, spokesman for SolarCity, a California-based company with more than 8,500 employees that installs solar panels on rooftops, said the collaboration between the Tea Party and solar industry is a growing trend.

"This shows that the thousands of conservative voters who have gone solar across the country are beginning to have their interests represented politically," Craven said in an email. "Everybody knows Florida is a sleeping giant of the rooftop solar industry, and there's an opportunity for leadership from someone to allow the job growth and consumer choice that is available in other states across the country."

The group will have to collect 683,149 signatures to make the ballot. Members say they are encouraged that voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question in November that will dedicate state money for land and water conservation.

Tory Perfetti, chairman of the group organizing the petition drive, said Florida is one of the most restrictive states when it comes to promoting solar power, but there is growing support from a wide range of political and business interests to increase its use.

"This is an overwhelmingly popular, popular ballot initiative," he said. "This is going to happen."



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