Solar power, lawyers, and money: It gets electric at top state court

By JOHN HOWELL The Daily Fray
March 5, 2016 10:32 pm

When Debbie Dooley joined Floridians for Solar Choice, the influential national conservative voice from Georgia and a barnstorming clean energy ally said, “The sun never sends a rate increase.” In fact, that may be for Florida’s top court to decide, starting Monday.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing a rival solar energy initiative that is funded and conceived by big utilities. Language in a proposed amendment to Florida's Constitution by Consumers for Smart Solar requires approval before a spot on November’s statewide ballot is secured.

Dooley.jpg» Supreme Court: Arguments expected to stream live Monday starting at 11 a.m. (Tap for link)

Solar Choice says Smart Solar is a "sham" — a deep-pocketed maneuver to annex the sun to Big Power's state monopoly. Critics say Smart Solar basically acknowledges existing rights for solar consumers. For businesses and homeowners who already own solar, they will still be allowed to sell excess electricity back to the utilities.

“I believe you have to follow the money,” Dooley (above), a co-founder of the Tea Party, said in a magazine interview. “It’s perfectly natural that if you’re in a big industry, you’re going to pull out all of the stops to protect that industry from competition.”

State power companies contributed roughly $6 million to Smart Solar, making it the richest political committee in Florida in 2015.

"Our amendment does nothing but encourage solar in Florida," Smart Solar spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said. "Our amendment is not misleading."

Solar Choice’s amendment proposal allows Floridians to install and generate up to 2 megawatts of solar and also sell power to neighboring businesses and homeowners. Under Florida law, only utilities can sell power. That doesn't change under Smart Solar. 

SolarPanelInstallation.jpgOral arguments at the Supreme Court — for and against Smart Solar — are scheduled to be streamed live Monday starting at 11 a.m.

Smart Solar was launched in July after Solar Choice’s initiative was christened in January. But Solar Choice leaders announced a “strategic pivot” Dec. 18 in a yearlong drive that fell halfway short of the state-mandated threshold of 683,149 verified signatures.

Smart Solar surpassed the target Jan. 22 and has 720,395 voters on its side, according to the state Division of Elections. But part of that was alleged streetwise trickeration. At the time a Solar Choice spokeswoman said in an email that there are "multiple instances around the state where paid [signature] gatherers misrepresented which solar ballot campaign they were collecting signatures for, further confusing voters about which initiative to support."

For sure, the duel for the sun in Florida is far from over.

“If [Smart Solar] does get on the ballot — if there’s even a possibility that it would do that — I think it would likely not pass [in November],” said Stephen Smith, head of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a Solar Choice founder.


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