The Koch brothers and utility giants are bankrolling a ballot initiative in Florida to block the development of home solar and to protect the utilities' continuing oligopoly on energy generation in the Sunshine State.
Solar is booming in the U.S., with a thirty percent increase in generation in 2014, but surprisingly it's facing an uphill battle in Florida. The state Public Service Commission - stacked with appointees hand-picked by Republican Governor Rick Scott for their current terms - have gutted Florida's energy efficiency goals and ended a solar power rebate program for homeowners.
State law even prevents homeowners from installing solar panels by restricting the leasing of equipment by consumers.
A coalition of environmental groups, called Floridians for Solar Choice, has secured more than 250,000 signatures of Florida residents toward proposing a ballot initiative to end this anti-solar law. If passed, their constitutional amendment would end the utilities' oligopoly on energy generation in Florida and give homeowners the flexibility to enter into contracts with solar companies, also known as Solar Power Purchase Agreements (SPPA).
If successful, the initiative would make Florida the 47th state to allow SPPA's, late but not dead last.
However, challenging the pro-solar amendment is a group calling itself "Consumers for Smart Solar" (CSS). Despite the innocuous sounding name, the group was created with cash from the utilities and groups tied to the billionaire Koch brothers - Charles and David Koch, whose vast wealth has grown from their refinery and pipeline business.
(David does own an enormous mansion in Palm Beach, although that's not the image the group's name brings to mind).
CSS is pushing Floridians to support a rival amendment that would actually prevent homeowners or businesses from contracting with solar companies that can install solar for no upfront cost.
The Utilities Have an Oligopoly in Florida, and They're Fighting to Keep It
Eyeing home solar energy as a growing threat to their control of the market, Florida utilities have spent $12 million since 2010 on state political campaigns, according to reporting by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
In just two months, Consumers for Smart Solar has received more than $473,750 from outside groups, including some that have ties to the Koch brothers, plus $325,000 from Florida utilities, according to an analysis of campaign finance data reviewed by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute.
Here are some examples of the big money at play:
Electric Utility Companies Funding to Consumers for Smart Solar:
- Duke Energy – $60,000
- Florida Power and Light Company – $80,000
- Gulf Power Company – $80,000
- Tampa Electric Company – $75,000
- Powersouth Energy Cooperative – $30,000
Outside Group Funding to "Consumers for Smart Solar":
- National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) – $50,000
- 60 Plus Association – $100,000
- Energy & Social Justice Project – $15,000
- Energy Equity Alliance – $1,000
- The Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy – $51,000
- Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – $50,000
- Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition Inc – $125,000
- Florida Council for Safe Communities – $20,000
- Floridians for Government Accountability – $61,750
Among the list of contributors to "Consumers for Smart Solar" is NBCC, which gave $50,000. The group has a long history of receiving funding from fossil fuel interests and advocating on their behalf.
Since the early 1990s, the organization has received $950,000 in grants from ExxonMobil. They've not only had two channels to Koch corporate funding connections but has also received funding from other carbon companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil and Southern Company.
So it's no surprise that the group has pushed back against many environmental regulations. Most recently, NBCC launched an entire campaign against the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon pollution in the U.S. At this point, NBCC meets the definition of "front group" for corporations, running ads that throw the voice of energy companies in their lobbying agenda.
Another contributor to the anti-solar campaign is the "60 Plus Association," which contributed $100,000. This senior citizen sounding group has deep ties to the Koch money machine. It has received at least $34 million since 2010 from organizations financially backed by the Koch brothers, including at least $15.7 million from the Koch-controlled "Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce," a new entity from the Kochs and their billionaire allies that shuttled a couple hundred million into the 2012 election cycle before anyone other than insiders knew the group's name.
This is not the first time that 60 Plus has been deployed for this kind of operation, even though it is more widely known for peddling opposition to health care reform. This Koch-aligned operation received secret funding in 2013 from Arizona's largest utility - APS - to run ads in another very sunny state, Arizona, pushing opposition to home solar. It also received at least $258,000 from the American Petroleum Institute since 2008.
Both Floridians for Solar Choice and the Koch-tied Consumers for Smart Solar are still collecting signatures to put the question of permitting Solar Purchasing Agreements to the voters on the 2016 ballot.
For more information about the utility and Koch-backed funding of a misleading ballot initiative in Florida, read the recent joint release published by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute.