Lost in the tumultuous presidential election and the down-ballot fears, something big has been happening quietly in Florida this year: Electric companies have dropped $34.7 million into political campaigns.
Since January 2015, $20 million of the industry’s profits went to finance and promote Amendment 1, the ballot initiative that attempts to frustrate the expansion of consumer-owned rooftop solar in Florida, but another $15 million more went to fuel the campaigns of a select group of powerful legislative leaders in an effort to prepare for a prolonged war against rooftop solar.
The bulk of the money is being used to promote Amendment 1 but, if that effort fails, the industry is also investing heavily into the Legislature to create favorable conditions in Florida, as utilities have in other states, to push back against the proliferation of rooftop solar.
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In other states that effort has included attempts to make solar less economically feasible by reducing the amount the utility spends to reimburse customers for generating excess electricity to the grid through “net metering,” imposing new fees on solar users and pre-empting local governments from opening the door to more solar competition.
Former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham blasted the amendment Tuesday as “deceptive” and unneeded and, if approved, will be a harmful step “backwards” for the state’s energy future.
“I’m discouraged as a citizen how far we have slipped and see Amendment 1 as a means of accelerating that decline in solar in Florida,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
According to Division of Elections reports, the biggest spender on the effort is Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, which has poured $22.2 million into political campaigns this cycle — $14.2 million into state legislative campaigns, and $8 million to Consumers For Smart Solar, the utility-backed political committee promoting amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Duke Energy, the St. Petersburg-based company and the state’s second largest utility, spent $13.3 million on legislative campaigns and another $6.7 million promoting Amendment 1. Tampa Electric Co., the third largest utility, has pumped $4.7 million into the political system, including $3.8 million for the amendment, and Gulf Power has invested $2.5 million, including $2.2 million to the political committee backing the amendment.
The committee has raised more than $26 million, including $6 million from non-profits and special interest political committees that have received substantial funding from the utility industry. By comparison, records show Florida’s sugar industry spent $57.8 million over 20 years to dominate legislative policy. The electric utilities will have spent two-thirds of that in a single year.
The candidates whose political committees benefited most from the money were all Republicans: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who accepted more than $381,000; Sen. Bill Galvano, who got $101,000 and Sen. Wilton Simpson, who received $98,000.
The utility-backed political committee and its surrogate spokespeople have promoted Amendment 1 as a “pro solar” initiative but, rather than open the state to more solar, the amendment asks voters to inject new language into the Constitution that will serve as a barrier to entry for any company that attempts to compete with the utility giants in providing solar energy in Florida.
Graham, a Democrat, suggested that by rejecting the amendment, voters could send a message to the Legislature that they want the utilities to join with solar advocates “to have a constructive discussion” and use the vote “as a springboard for a positive, better energy future for Florida.”
But, he warned, if the amendment passes, “it will discourage the expansion of solar by psychologically strengthening the position before an already compliant Legislature and Public Service Commission to erect barriers to solar.’’
The utilities argue that homeowners with solar panels still rely on the grid for electricity at night and on cloudy days but don’t compensate the utilities enough to maintain their power plants, transmission lines and maintenance crews. The emerging argument is that net metering laws that allow homeowners to be reimbursed for the excess energy their solar panels generate, and tax rebates to solar customers, are unfair subsidies intended to benefit solar users at the expense of non-solar users.
“We are opposed to subsidies that are unfair and regressive,” said Rob Gould, spokesperson for Florida Power & Light in an email to the Herald/Times. “There’s a difference between governmental tax break/credit subsidies [such as the property tax credits for solar installations] and subsidies that benefit certain customers on the backs of other customers [rebates, net metering, etc.].”
Gould wouldn’t say explicitly what the legislative agenda would look like to oppose these “subsidies.” In documents filed with state regulators, and in public statements, many officials at Florida’s utilities have made it clear they want to roll back the current net metering law as utilities have in other states.
Suzanne Grant, spokesperson for Duke Energy, said in an email that the utility believes “the current net metering policy needs updating, and we believe customers who use the power grid continuously, like solar customers, should pay for grid access, grid services and the backup power they use.”
But Graham called the subsidies concept “a false argument.” He cited studies commissioned by regulators in states such as Nevada and Mississippi and compiled by the Brookings Institution that conclude that costs associated with more rooftop solar are generally outweighed by benefits.
“The installation of solar saves customers money because it avoids having to build additional generating capacity, the cost of which in Florida not only gets passed along to ratepayers once those plant are in operation but, as we learned with Duke Energy on the Gulf Coast, they got paid in advance for building nuclear plants that were never constructed,” Graham told reporters.
Solar advocates argue that it also provides a net benefit to other utility customers because it alleviates the need to fire up expensive “peaker” power plants when utility use is at its peak, reduces demand for energy delivered by power plants that emit carbons, and offsets the need to construct new power plants.
Graham said Florida should follows Georgia’s lead and pass laws that make it easier for property owners to allow third parties to install solar panels on their roofs, not discourage them, and require utility companies to increase the amount of electricity they generate using solar power.
He echoed the argument of other solar advocates that Amendment 1 is deceptive because it leaves the impression that solar could expand in Florida.
“This is deceptive in that all the things the advocates could say could happen with this amendment can happen without this amendment,” he said. “You don’t have to have a constitutional amendment to have adequate regulatory power over solar. You don’t have to have a constitutional amendment to have safety.”
According to utility industry records, the electric industry fears that a surge in rooftop solar will also reduce profits for the investor-owned utility industry, which has benefited from price competition as a regulated monopoly.
“The longer-term threat of fully exiting from the grid [or customers solely using the electric grid for backup purposes] raises the potential for irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects,” wrote the Edison Electric Institute, the investor-owned utility trade group, in a 2013 report.
The 2013 EEI report on “disruptive challenges” suggested that as prices drop for rooftop solar panels, and demand increases, the electric utilities industry faces a “loss of customers.” Its business and regulatory models, which depend on a regulated monopoly, face “potential obsolescence” and that ability of rooftop solar owners to generate excess power, sell it back to the grid or their neighboring properties poses the “technological obsolescence of existing infrastructure.”
The report also compared the electricity industry’s existential threats from battery storage, solar power and distributed energy from rooftop solar and other renewable sources to the demise of Kodak and its dependence on film cameras in the age of digital technology, or the U.S. Postal Service, and the threat it faces from delivery companies.
In an earlier 2012 presentation, the trade group warned that the “industry must prepare an action plan to address the challenges.” Among the suggestions was to portray the emergence of solar power as a subsidy on non-solar users, as the language in Amendment 1 does.
Florida four largest electric utilities have spent $34.2 million so far this election cycle, including $20.7 million for Consumers for Smart Solar, CSS, the political committee promoting Amendment 1. (The committee has raised another $6 million from non-profits and special interest political committees that have received substantial funding from the utility industry.)
Top utilities’ contributions
▪ FPL: $22.2 million total, $8 million to CSS
▪ Duke Energy: $13.3 million total, $6.7 million to CSS
▪ Gulf Power: $2.5 million total, $2.2 million to CSS
▪ Tampa Electric Co: $4.7 million total, $3.8 million to CSS
Contributions to groups by FPL and Duke Energy
▪ Associated Industries of Florida and its affiliated committees: $1.57 million from FPL and $100,000 from Duke Energy
▪ Florida Chamber and its affiliated committees: $1.5 million from FPL and $1.5 million from Duke Energy
▪ Florida Democratic Party: $61,517 from FPL and $6,650 from Duke Energy
▪ Republican Party of Florida: $340,000 from FPL, $257,900 from Duke (the fund is controlled by House leaders)
▪ Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee: $175,000 from FPL and $290,000 from Duke Energy
▪ House Republican Campaign Committee: $50,000 from Duke Energy
Contributions to individuals FPL, Duke Energy
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Florida Grown PC: FPL $281,275, Duke $100,000
Sen Bill Galvano, R-Sarasota, Innovate Florida PC: FPL $50,000, Duke $51,000
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Jobs for Florida PC: FPL $58,000, Duke $40,000
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Treasure Coast Alliance PC: FPL $82,500
Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, Growing Florida's Future PC: FPL $79,999
Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, Friends of Dana Young PC: FPL $10,000, Duke $31,000
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Lakes, Building a Majority PC: FPL $25,000, Duke $20,000
Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Orlando, Committee for Justice PC, Transportation: FPL $30,000, $11,000
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Free Enterprise Fund and Economic Freedom Foundation PCs: FPL $20,000, Duke $10,000
Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, Floridians for Liberty and Innovation PC: Duke $21,000
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, Florida Leadership Committee PC: FPL $5000, Duke $14,829
Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Fort Lauderdale, Florida Standing United PC: FPL $17,500
Rep. Jim Boyd. R-Sarasota, Building on Your Dreams PC: Duke $13,500
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, Floridians for a Strong Economy PC: $12,000
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, Rebuild Florida PC: Duke $11,000
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquito, R-Fort Myers, Protect Florida Families PC: FPL $10,000
Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, Florida 2020 PC: FPL $10,000
Gov. Rick Scott, Let’s Get to Work PC: FPL $10,000
Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Daytona Beach, Paving Florida’s Future PC: FPL $10,000
Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Naples, Free Markets for Florida PC: FPL $5,000, Duke $4,500
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, Working for Florida’s Families: FPL $1,457 in in-kind contributions, Duke $5,000
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, Floridians for Strong Leadership: FPL $5,800, Duke $1,000
Lauren Book, D-Fort Lauderdale, Leadership for Broward PC: FPL $5,000
Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, Veterans for Conservative Principles PC: FPL $2,500, Duke $1,000
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, Florida Patriot Fund PC: FPL $2,500