Millions in political donations from Florida utilities help keep solar panels off rooftops

Back when Dr. Paige Kreegel was a state representative in 2009, he had an idea that he thought simply made sense:

Florida, the Sunshine State, should become a model for solar power.

As chair of the state House's Committee on Energy, Kreegel was in a position to change Florida laws that have restricted the growth of energy-producing rooftop solar panels on homes in Florida. As a self-described free-market Republican, Kreegel saw the issue as getting government out of the way of a growing industry.

But Kreegel soon discovered that his fellow committee members wouldn't even discuss solar energy, and the fact that he brought it up made him an outcast in Tallahassee. When he walked the halls of the Legislature, other lawmakers would turn around and shut their doors.

"You know how Tallahassee has an in-group and an out-group?" said Kreegel, a physician in Punta Gorda who left the House in 2012. "I didn't know I was on the outside until I went against the public utilities, and then -- holy hell."

Kreegel isn't alone.

Other state lawmakers and lobbyists said that anyone who has attempted to expand the rooftop solar industry has been ostracized and seen their proposals go nowhere. The reason, some lawmakers said, is that Florida's largest utility companies have invested heavily in state political campaigns to fend off competition from rooftop solar power.

An analysis of campaign records by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting shows that the utility companies have sunk $12 million into the campaigns of state lawmakers since 2010.

That money comes from the bills paid by customers of the state's four largest utilities -- Duke Energy, Gulf Power, Florida Power & Light and Tampa Electric (TECO).

Those donations include contributions to every member of the Senate and House leadership. The recipient of the most utility money since 2010 is Gov. Rick Scott's 2014 re-election campaign, which took in more than $1.1 million through two political action committees.

"Why don't we have a bigger solar industry in Florida?" asked Mike Antheil, a West Palm Beach lobbyist who represents solar companies. "The answer is simple. Every kilowatt of solar you produce on your roof is one less kilowatt that the utilities can sell you."

The state's largest utilities declined to comment on specific questions related to this article.

In an email, Duke Energy spokesperson Sterling Ivey said the company could not comment "since there is pending/proposed legislative bills that we are actively monitoring."

Cherie Jacobs, a spokesperson for Tampa Electric, said: "We participate in the political process, we support both parties, and we support candidates who focus on building the economy and on creating jobs."

FPL spokesperson Alys Daly wrote in an email that the company supports "customers who want to install their own solar panels, and we take special care to serve the specialized needs of our solar customers."

With little support in Tallahassee, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups hopes to make Florida friendlier to rooftop solar energy with a 2016 ballot initiative. Before that happens, though, Florida's four largest power companies may see their influence grow. There's proposed legislation circulating in Tallahassee now that would stop homeowners from selling extra energy created from solar back to utility companies, perhaps the biggest blow yet to Florida's fledgling solar industry.

Big Energy's campaign cash

Only a small portion of the $12 million spent since 2010 by electric companies on political campaigns went directly to candidates. Instead, most of the utility money went to political action committees and political parties.

Half of the money, $6.68 million, went to the Republican Party of Florida. The second-largest recipient of electric company money, the Florida Democratic Party, took in $1.8 million.

Donations of this type allow the utilities to avoid state campaign-contribution limits, which cap donations to Florida legislative candidates at $1,000 per election cycle.

Conservative political action committees top the list of those receiving contributions, with the Florida Conservative Majority, Freedom First Committee and House Republican Campaign Committee all receiving more than six figures each from the utilities.

Those donations to the leadership allow the power companies to keep pro-solar bills from getting anywhere, said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, a supporter of the rooftop solar industry.

"We in Florida are stuck in the stone age. This is probably the most byzantine energy legislation in the country," he said. Dudley has filed legislation that would have increased renewable energy in the state, including solar, but none of his ideas have made it to the House floor.

Failed reforms

The Florida law that has restricted the growth of the rooftop solar industry has been on the books for nearly a century. It was written to give utilities a regional monopoly on power production, avoiding a tangle of power lines strung up by competing companies.

The law didn't affect the solar industry until the last several years, when the price of solar panels made it cost-efficient enough for rooftop solar to compete with utility companies. With ample sunshine, only two other states, California and Texas, have more rooftop solar power potential than Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Yet, the state ranks 13th in installed solar capacity.

The average home solar array now costs $15,000 to $30,000 and can pay for itself in 10 to 20 years, said Ray Johnson, president and founder of the U.S. Solar Institute, an Oakland Park, Fla., school that teaches technicians how to install the panels. (Daly, the FPL spokesperson, claimed in an email that solar is not cost effective and, instead, pointed to the utility's "highly efficient system and low electric rates.")

The problem is that few homeowners want to pay up front for the system, Johnson said. In about half of the states, solar companies can install panels for free and then sell the power to the home or business owner at a rate lower than local utilities, paying for the system over time. These third-party sales are generally illegal under the Florida law that gives utility companies a local monopoly on supplying power.

Since Kreegel's unsuccessful attempt to expand solar power in 2009, other lawmakers have tried as well, only to watch their bills languish in committee.

Solar's unlikely coalition

With few allies in Tallahassee, the state's rooftop solar power industry is now looking to bypass lawmakers. A proposed constitutional amendment, which may appear on the 2016 ballot, would allow third-party solar power sales in Florida.

The effort is being organized by an unlikely collection of interests, including the Christian Coalition, pro-retail groups, the Tea Party, and clean-energy supporters. The idea brings together those who support fewer government regulations and those who support reducing carbon emissions, said Tory Perfetti, a Republican operative from Tampa working with a group called Floridians for Solar Choice. "Finally, the sun is shining on the process of opening the energy market in Florida," Perfetti said.

The ballot initiative is being funded in part by Floridians for Solar Choice, a political action committee. It's not easy to trace the source of the money being given to the pro-solar initiative -- unlike with the utility company money. Most of the contributions to Floridians for Solar Choice, totaling $264,457, came from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, which does not report the source of its money.

Regulatory concerns

Florida regulators that oversee power companies have been far from allies of rooftop solar power.

The Public Service Commission, the Florida regulatory agency that oversees utilities, has set the rate that utilities buy excess rooftop solar at two to three cents per kilowatt hour. In 13 states, utilities must pay the rate at which they sell power, which in Florida is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour for homeowners. In November, the commission voted to end the solar rebate program at the end of the year and slash energy efficiency goals.

"Solar power works now. It's not 10 years from now. It's not five years from now. It's now," said Scott McIntyre, CEO of Solar Energy Management in Tampa, which just completed a $2.6 million solar project expected to pay for itself in about six years. "We just need the state to get out of its way and allow solar power to grow."

Grant Smith of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting contributed data analysis to this article. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.