POLITICS

Conservative Groups Battle Over Solar In Florida

03/09/2015 06:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- A Florida effort to expand access to solar power has become a face-off between two factions of the conservative movement.

The group Conservatives for Energy Freedom is blasting Americans for Prosperity for what it called a "campaign of deception" against a ballot initiative that would make it easier for businesses and individuals to install rooftop solar energy. Conservatives for Energy Freedom, along with the state group Floridians for Solar Choice and a number of other organizations from across the political spectrum, have been working to gather enough signatures to get a measure on the November 2016 ballot that would allow direct sale of solar power to consumers.

Currently, Florida is one of only five states in the country where it is illegal to sell power from any source other than electric utilities. But if approved, the ballot measure would allow homes and businesses to install solar and sell excess energy they generate to their neighbors. It would also allow for power purchase agreements, where a solar company pays the upfront cost of installing solar generating systems on homes and businesses, and then the customers pay for the energy they use.

The ballot measure has gathered wide-ranging support, from national groups like the Tea Party Network and the Christian Coalition; in-state conservative groups like the Libertarian Party of Florida and the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida; environmental groups like the Sierra Club's Florida chapter and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; and business groups like the Florida Retail Federation.

But one foe has emerged: Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political group backed by the Koch brothers.

Americans for Prosperity has been pillorying the ballot measure in emails to its supporters. "The Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC) ballot initiative isn’t about freedom or choice -- it’s about money, and using government and taxpayers to prop up the solar industry," the group's Florida chapter wrote in a letter to supporters, which the pro-solar faction provided to reporters.

The AFP letter claims that the solar industry "cannot survive without taxpayer funded subsidies and mandates" and that if the ballot measure passes, Floridians "can expect those subsidies to grow." Conservative advocates in Florida say AFP has been emailing and calling supporters in the state to try to turn them against the ballot measure.

Proponents of the ballot measure argue there aren't any subsidies or mandates in the measure -- just legal changes that would make it easier for people in the state to get solar if they want. Debbie Dooley, a Georgia-based tea party leader and founder of Conservatives For Energy Freedom, accused the AFP of "hypocrisy" on the issue of solar power.

"AFP is supposed to espouse free-market principles, but they're trying to prevent Floridians from engaging in commerce in a free-market manner," Dooley told The Huffington Post. "They are resorting to outright lies."

Dooley accused the group of kowtowing to its corporate benefactors rather than the will of the people, as the Koch brothers made much of their money off fossil fuels. "You don’t throw your principles out the window to benefit your corporate benefactors," she said.

Chris Hudson, director of AFP's Florida chapter, said the group's stance was in line with free-market principles, and that solar can't compete in a free market currently. "At least at this point ... it relies on government mandates and taxpayer-funded subsidies to make it feasible," he said in an emailed statement to HuffPost. "The policies that some are promoting would shift more costs onto homeowners that don’t user solar."

Advocates, meanwhile, say their effort is in line with conservative principles. "It's opening up the free market and freedom of choice for businesses and consumers," said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice. "Right now Florida is basically blocking the free market and commerce that normal American consumers are used to practicing."

Current Florida state law, Perfetti said, "outlaws the free market" when it comes to energy. "If solar is going to succeed or fail, or any form of energy is going to succeed or fail, allow the free market to determine that. Allow people the choice of what they want," said Perfetti, a Tampa-area based political activist who also serves as the state director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

There's a lot of room for solar growth in the Sunshine State. The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Florida third in the country in terms of the potential for solar energy, but it is currently only 13th in installed capacity.

AFP's bulletin also tries to link the ballot initiative to "radical environmentalists" funded by Tom Steyer, the millionaire environmental advocate, arguing that one of the environmental groups, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, is funded by Steyer. The alliance's executive director tells HuffPost they've never received funding from Steyer or any of his groups.

Besides, the measure's conservative supporters say, even if he was funding it, it wouldn't matter. "If Tom Steyer or anyone else wants to donate to help us open the market for solar and push for free-market energy choice in Florida, I would be very happy to accept their money," said Dooley.

The group has already gathered 100,000 signatures on its petition to add the measure to the ballot, the first of several steps toward getting it officially included in 2016. Advocates say they're positive that the large coalition they've built to support the measure will ultimately be successful, despite AFP's efforts

"I guess [AFP's] hoping the conservative activists in Florida are really stupid," said Dooley. "I think they're going to find out they're not stupid."

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