Color us shocked: report shows energy, utility industries trying to quash cheap solar

As we have covered before, efforts to expand solar power in Florida have been met with fierce utility industry resistance.

Well, a new study shows that barrier isn't unique to the Sunshine State.

The nonprofit Environment America on Thursday released a report demonstrating the many ways in which utilities like Duke Energy and shadowy industry-backed groups like Wisconsin's dubious "Consumer Energy Alliance" are trying to undermine efforts to make solar power more affordable or rollback laws that already do.

With a long list of linked sources in tow, the report, titled "Blocking the Sun: 12 Utilities and Fossil Fuel Interests that are Undermining American Solar Power," connects the dots between entities like Koch Industries (or a related nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity) and groups like 60 Plus, a "Koch front group" designed to look like a conservative counterpart to AARP that has opposed efforts to make solar more affordable. 

Also called out are Edison Electric Institute, which worked with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to try to repeal renewable energy standards and fight expanded solar in Arizona.

As for entities operating in Florida, the study names Duke Energy as a key offender. The company "has positioned itself to be seen as a champion of solar energy," the report says, investing hundreds of millions in what's called utility-scale solar (i.e. huge solar farms generating power it can sell to customers) in the states where it operates, which also includes North Carolina. The company actually just today announced a second massive solar farm for Florida — a 20-acre, 22,000-panel facility to be constructed in the town of Perry.

It would be one of nearly two dozen such facilities in the state, indeed giving Duke the appearance of an industry leader on sustainability rather than a monolithic power giant trying to quash competition.

“We are encouraged to see the declining price of solar technology and the interest our customers have in this renewable resource,” said Alex Glenn, who heads Duke Energy's Florida operations. “This larger scale solar facility allows us to efficiently bring the greatest amount of renewables online for our customers in the most economical way.”

But beneath that veneer, environmental activists point out, Duke and other power companies that operate in Florida fund political campaigns for opponents of candidates that are for expanding solar. They're also now trying to quash efforts that would allow consumers to generate solar power independently of large power companies.

"When it comes to the rights of individuals and businesses to generate their own electricity from the sun, however, Duke has been a tenacious opponent of solar energy," notes the report.

Efforts on the part of utilities like Duke to block solar in Florida have coalesced in the form of a solar ballot amendment effort (Consumers for Smart Solar) aimed at killing another solar ballot amendment (Floridians for Solar Choice).

The former enshrines the status quo into the state constitution, while the latter would open the state up to a model that would let consumers generate their own solar and sell it to their neighbors, tenants or back to the grid — something illegal here and in a handful of other states.

The Solar Choice amendment is gathering petitions and is under state Supreme Court review to determine its validity, while the utility-backed Smart Solar effort (which also has Koch backing) just got enough petitions to become eligible for a Court review, a spokesperson announced today.

Not that it matters, say supporters of the amendment that would actually change the state's solar power.

“Because they have a ton of money that they get from ratepayers to spend to confuse people and argue against the ratepayers’ own interests,” Susan Glickman, a Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a major backer of Solar Choice, told CL in September. “That’s what’s happening here. They are busy trying to build power plants and put major assets in their rate base when the cost of solar has come down exponentially.

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