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How Big Energy Wields Its Power Over Solar In Florida

Solar Energy Tampa Florida/flickr

A citizen-led effort seeks to put a solar power-expanding initiative on Florida’s 2016 ballot. It would allow entities other than utility companies to sell the solar power they generate. At the same time, legislation proposed in Tallahassee would keep Florida as one of only five states that prevent anyone other than utilities from selling solar power.

Utility companies – and lawmakers – have their reasons for trying to thwart efforts to make the Sunshine State a leader in rooftop solar power, according to Eric Barton with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. He recently finished an investigation about Big Energy’s control over the Legislature.

Barton joins us to talk about why Florida doesn’t have a booming solar power industry.

You wrote an article that paints a picture of a former state representative, Punta Gorda Republican Paige Kreegel, as a lawmaker who came to Tallahassee with hopes of growing the solar industry. But he was ostracized, and he was shocked by that. Tell us what happened.

Kreegel chaired the House Energy committee in 2009, and he wanted to see more rooftop solar in Florida. He saw it as a way to just get government out of the way of an industry. But his idea went against the state’s utility companies, and he says that made him a pariah. People saw him and walked the other way and shut doors on him as he walked through the House. The story he tells is one we heard from several politicians who challenged utilities.

A lot of people think the Sunshine State should be a leader in solar power. So, what’s holding us back?

The main thing that's holding us back is a law that creates monopolies for local utility companies. The law has a good reason for existence. Back 100 years ago, multiple power companies could try to sell you electricity, and there were multiple lines and poles all stretched around your town. So, Florida law created local monopolies to avoid that. That law, however, restricts (in Florida) what is possible in other states which is – a solar company can come in, put panels on your roof for free and then sell you back the electricity. It’s called third-party sales, and that’s illegal in Florida.

Also, the state’s regulatory commission that oversees utility companies recently took away the incentives to build solar, and that was at the request of the utility companies.

You mention a proposal that would prevent homeowners from selling the extra energy they create from solar back to the utility companies. What or who is behind that proposal?

There’s a group called ALEC - the American Legislative Exchange Council - that writes model legislation that gets passed around in every state capitol. They’ve written legislation that would end net metering, or the ability to sell extra power back to the power companies from your solar system. Right now, it’s being passed around Tallahassee, and there’s a lot of people who say it’s going to probably be tacked on to another bill.

ALEC, by the way, is funded by the Koch brothers and a lot of oil money, so they have an incentive in making sure solar doesn’t grow in Florida.