How Florida Newspapers Helped A Utility Front Group Promote A Deceptive, Anti-Solar Amendment

How Florida Newspapers Helped A Utility Front Group Promote A Deceptive, Anti-Solar Amendment

››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

A utility-backed front group deceptively named “Consumers for Smart Solar” has been campaigning for a misleading ballot initiative in Florida that is disguised to look pro-solar but could actually hamper the growth of rooftop solar power and protect utilities’ electricity monopoly. Florida newspapers have published over a dozen op-eds in favor of the amendment by representatives of this group without disclosing their utility industry ties.

Florida Newspapers Published Op-Eds By Utility-Backed Front Group That Portrayed Amendment 1 As Pro-Solar

Organization Named “Consumers For Smart Solar” Campaigning For Ballot Measure. A ballot measure titled “Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use Initiative,” known as Amendment 1, will be on the ballot in Florida on November 8. A group called “Consumers for Smart Solar” (CSS) has been backing the amendment, with a campaign called “Yes on 1 for the Sun.” The ballot initiative would amend the state constitution to establish the “right” for electricity consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property, while instructing state and local governments to “ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.” [Consumers for Smart Solar, 4/12/16; Constitutional Amendment Petition Form, accessed 10/27/16]

Consumers For Smart Solar Is Mostly Funded By Big Utility Companies. According to Ballotpedia, “As of the end of September 2016, Gulf Power Company, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Company, and Florida Power and Light had contributed $17.8 million of the $21.5 million raised” by Consumers for Smart Solar, which is 83 percent of the front group’s total funding. [Ballotpedia, accessed 10/27/16]

Koch- And Exxon-Funded Front Groups Also Also Backing The Campaign. Ballotpedia documented that, in addition to funding from big utility companies, the Consumers for Smart Solar campaign has received $1.44 million from the 60 Plus Association, which is funded largely by groups connected to the oil billionaire Koch brothers and has also received funding from the American Petroleum Institute. Consumers for Smart Solar additionally received over $100,000 from both the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), which is funded by ExxonMobil, and The Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), which has received funding from a dark money group tied to Alabama Power and is official partners with the Consumer Energy Alliance, the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, and the Tennessee Mining Association. [Ballotpedia, accessed 10/27/16; Media Matters, 7/31/16]

Florida Newspapers Published At Least 14 Op-Eds By CSS Co-Chairmen Claiming Amendment 1 Would Promote Solar Without Disclosing Industry Ties. Florida newspapers have published at least 14 op-eds by CSS co-chairmen Dick Batchelor or Jim Kallinger (or both) that all tout Amendment 1 as supportive of solar energy. The Gainesville Sun and Pensacola News Journal have both published three such op-eds; The Orlando Sentinel, Naples Daily News, and Palm Beach Post each published two, and Tampa Bay Times and The Sarasota Observer each published one. The op-eds included pro-solar rhetoric such as “Florida certainly needs more solar power,” “Solar is an exciting opportunity and an emerging industry,” CSS “wants to encourage the use of more solar energy in Florida,” and CSS officials “agree that Florida needs more solar.” But none of these newspapers disclosed the group’s financial backing from utilities and fossil fuel interests that have a vested interest in opposing the growth of rooftop solar. One op-ed by Kallinger that was posted on TCPalm.com, the website of several Treasure Coast newspapers and part of the USA Today network, did include the following disclosure: “Jim Kallinger is co-chair of the utility-backed political committee Consumers for Smart Solar and a former Republican state representative.” However, that description of Kallinger did not appear in the print edition of any newspaper archived in Nexis. [The Gainesville Sun, 10/12/16, 6/21/16, 4/21/16; Pensacola News Journal, 7/31/16, 4/17/16, 3/6/16; Orlando Sentinel, 9/14/16, 9/30/16; Naples Daily News, 7/27/16, 5/11/16; Palm Beach Post, 8/20/16, 4/27/16; Tampa Bay Times, 10/27/16Sarasota Observer, 10/13/16 via Nexis; TCPalm.com, 9/29/16]

Contrary To Front Group’s Claims, Ballot Initiative Would Likely Harm Solar Development While Protecting Utility Control

Huffington Post: Solar Advocates Say Amendment 1 Could Harm The Solar Industry In Florida By Restricting Third-Party Purchases. The Huffington Post reported:

Solar power advocates in Florida are in an uproar over a ballot amendment they say is masquerading as pro-solar.

[...]

Opponents of Amendment 1 say it will restrict people from buying or leasing solar panels from third-party companies. But third-party installers ― companies like SolarCity and Sunrun ― are how most Americans get their own residential solar power systems. Third-party groups installed about 72 percent of the residential solar across the country in 2014.

[...]

[T]he measure is crafted in a way that would keep customers dependent on utilities, rather than empowering them to own their own solar power systems, said Albert Gore, deputy director of the solar power provider SolarCity and son of former Vice President Al Gore. The measure would effectively allow utilities to control the state’s solar market, he said. [The Huffington Post, 10/24/16]

Amendment 1 Could Threaten Net Metering Policy That Supports Rooftop Solar. Amendment 1 instructs state and local governments to "ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do." As InsideClimate News reported, critics of the amendment say this signals that its "ultimate target ... is taking down 'net metering,'" a policy that allows customers to send excess electricity from their rooftop solar panels to the electric grid in exchange for a credit from the utility company. Fossil fuel interests often fearmonger that net metering increases electricity prices for non-solar users, but in fact a recent study from the Brookings Institution found that net metering "frequently benefits all ratepayers when all costs and benefits are accounted for." And previous studies also found that net metering does not increase electricity prices for non-solar customers. [InsideClimate News, 10/20/16; Brookings Institution, 5/23/16; Media Matters, 9/14/15]

Florida Supreme Court Justice Blasted Amendment 1 As “Affirmatively Misleading,” “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.” The Florida Supreme Court, in a narrow 4-3 ruling, determined that the ballot initiative’s wording met legal requirements. But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente called the ballot initiative a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that is “masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative” but “actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo.” She added:

The ballot title is affirmatively misleading by its focus on “Solar Energy Choice,” when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy. The ballot language is further defective for purporting to grant rights to solar energy consumers that are illusory; and failing, as required, to clearly and unambiguously set forth the chief purpose of the proposed amendment—to maintain the status quo favoring the very electric utilities who are the proponents of this amendment.

[...]

The second part of the amendment acts as a significant restriction on the expansion of solar energy rights and “choice[s]” by embedding in the Constitution the government's unbridled discretion to regulate private solar energy use. Yet, any indication of this restriction is glaringly excluded from the ballot title, making it affirmatively misleading. [Sun-Sentinel, 3/31/16; Advisory Opinion to the Attorney General re Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice (FIS), 3/31/16]

Leaked Audio Revealed Utilities Sought To Deceive Public Into Believing The Amendment Is Pro-Solar. In an audio recording obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute, Sal Nuzzo, the policy director of the Koch-linked James Madison Institute (JMI), admitted that the utility industry “attempted to deceive voters into supporting restrictions on the expansion of solar by shrouding Amendment 1 as a pro-solar amendment,” as the Miami Herald reported. The Herald noted that Nuzzo described the amendment as “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road,” and also reported:

[Nuzzo] offered others a recommendation: “As you guys look at policy in your state, or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: Solar polls very well,” he said.

“To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that’s the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”

As the Herald noted, “JMI has received more than $120,000 from the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation, and Stan Connally, the CEO of Gulf Power, sits on JMI’s board of directors.” In addition to Connally, the Center for Media and Democracy has noted that “Alan Bense serves as the chairman of JMI’s board of directors and is also a member of Gulf Power’s board.” JMI is also a member of the State Policy Network, a network of conservative think tanks across the country that are largely funded by Koch-backed dark money groups DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. [Miami Herald, 10/18/16; Center for Media and Democracy, 10/18/16; Media Matters7/31/15]

Rooftop Solar Threatens Utilities’ Business Model. Rolling Stone reported in February that fossil fuel interests are waging a war on state-level solar policies, and added that “nowhere has the solar industry been more eclipsed than in Florida, where the utilities' powers of obstruction are unrivaled.” From Rolling Stone:

The rise of cheap, distributed solar power poses a disruptive – and perhaps existential – threat to the traditional electric utility business.

[...]

The rise of distributed solar power poses a triple threat to these monopoly gains. First: When homeowners install their own solar panels, it means the utilities build fewer power plants, and investors miss out on a chance to profit. Second: Solar homes buy less electricity from the grid; utilities lose out on recurring profits from power sales. Third: Under "net metering" laws, most utilities have to pay rooftop solar producers for the excess power they feed onto the grid. In short, rooftop solar transforms a utility's traditional consumers into business rivals.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has noted that Florida has the third-highest solar potential in the country but ranks 14th for solar capacity installed. [Rolling Stone, 2/11/16; SEIA, accessed 10/27/16]

Many Florida Newspapers’ Editorial Boards Have Spoken Out Against The Initiative

19 Florida Newspaper Editorial Boards Oppose Amendment 1. At least 19 Florida newspapers have published editorials opposing Amendment 1, as compiled by the solar company Superior Solar. These include:

  • The Tampa Bay Times, which called Amendment 1 a “solar scam.” The board wrote: “This campaign is bought and paid for by the biggest electric companies in Florida … that have contributed nearly all of the $21 million to confuse voters, protect their market share and prolong the delay of more affordable and cleaner energy options.” [Tampa Bay Times, 10/14/16]
  • The Miami Herald, which said the amendment “sounds like it has consumers’ best interest in mind, but the opposite is true,” and added: “Here’s what’s at the root of this amendment: Allowing homeowners and businesses to sell excess solar energy they produce. That’s the competition that the utilities want to thwart.” [Miami Herald, 10/9/16]
  • The Orlando Sentinel, which suggested that Amendment 1 could “make it easier for utility-friendly legislators and regulators in Tallahassee to make rooftop solar power cost-prohibitive in Florida,” and argued that “cementing current policies into the Florida Constitution would be especially ill-advised in an area evolving as quickly as solar energy.” [Orlando Sentinel, 10/8/16]
  • The Palm Beach Post, which called the amendment a “con” and a “ploy by the large utility companies to protect their dominance of the energy market.” [Palm Beach Post, 10/11/16]
  • The Sun Sentinel, which wrote that the amendment “is meant to confuse Floridians, and the state's Supreme Court never should have let it get on the ballot,” adding: “Under the guise of being pro-solar, Amendment 1 inserts into the state's constitution what already exists in law — the right to own or lease solar panels. But the amendment could also land a crushing blow to net metering, a policy that is common across the country and requires utility companies — including those in Florida — to buy electricity from homes that generate excess solar power.” [Sun Sentinel, 9/30/16]
  • The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which stated, “The only ‘choice’ for Floridians to make in this statewide referendum is between voting for or opposing an unnecessary, misleading initiative.” [Herald-Tribune, 10/3/16]
  • The Naples Daily News, which wrote, “If approval simply puts us where we are today, as both sides battling over this amendment seemed to acknowledge in separate meetings with our editorial board, we question why we’re even having a vote.” The editorial also said that questions over whether the amendment's language is misleading is a "point of concern” and urged readers to vote “no.” [Naples Daily News, 10/16/16]
  • The Pensacola News Journal, which called the amendment “a confusing and deceptive chunk of legalistic language that has absolutely no place in the state constitution,” adding that “citizens will gain nothing from it. No protections. No rights. And no more solar.” The News Journal also stated: “The fact is that Amendment 1 is the brainchild of the largest power companies in Florida, including Gulf Power. These utilities have largely funded the deceptive push for the amendment with almost $22 million so far. Most laughably, all that cash has been funneled through a group named ‘Consumers for Smart Solar.’ Since when did your power company become a ‘consumer?’” [Pensacola News Journal, 10/15/16]
  • The Gainesville Sun, which said that “Florida’s utilities are taking advantage of public support for solar by pushing a deceptive amendment to protect their energy monopolies.” The Sun added that the amendment “potentially cement[s] the status quo, or worse, for solar energy,” and concluded: “If we want a future filled with clean beaches and water rather than relying more heavily on polluting fossil fuels, we need to chart a different direction for Florida.” [The Gainesville Sun, 9/18/15]

Several of the editorials noting that the Consumers for Smart Solar campaign is misleading -- including those by the Palm Beach Post, Pensacola News Journal, The Gainsesville Sun, and Tampa Bay Times -- were published in newspapers that helped the front group mislead the public by publishing its op-eds without disclosing its industry ties. [Superior Solar, accessed 10/27/16]

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