Leaked audio shines light on Florida's rooftop solar fight

The battle got even uglier over a proposed amendment to Florida’s constitution that would impede rooftop solar, after a leaked audio recording highlighted what many see as the underhanded strategy of the state’s power utilities to block the sector’s development.

In early November voters in Florida will decide the fate of Amendment 1, which is backed by power utilities like Southern Company and NextEra Energy but strongly opposed by the state’s rooftop solar industry.

According to the solar industry, not only would a victory for Amendment 1 hamper the growth of distributed solar in what is already a hugely under-developed market. It would do so in a way that would trick Florida voters – who overwhelmingly approve of solar – into thinking they were supporting the solar industry.

The political group that is pushing for Amendment 1 – Consumers for Smart Solar – has reportedly received more than $21m in funding by the utility sector, which fears that rooftop solar will undercut its model of centralised electricity generation.

Florida’s rooftop PV industry says the group’s name and PV panel-smothered messaging – Yes on 1: For the Sun – make it seem like it supports the expansion of rooftop solar, when in fact Amendment 1 would allow utilities to impose higher fees on homeowners with solar panels.

The sense that big power companies are attempting to confuse voters was bolstered this week when the Miami Herald released audio from a policy director at a conservative think tank that works closely with Florida’s utilities.

In the audio, Sal Nuzzo, vice president at the Koch Brothers-funded James Madison Institute, says Consumers for Smart Solar’s decision to use the “language of promoting solar” in pushing for Amendment 1 has been an “incredibly savvy manoeuvre” and an impressive display of “political jiu-jitsu”.

Acknowledging that solar is highly popular with Florida consumers, Nuzzo added that if Amendment 1 passes in November, it will “completely negate” any future legislative victories the solar industry might score.

The audio was recorded an industry conference for power executives in early October.

Florida’s utilities tried to distance themselves from the audio, claiming that Nuzzo’s organisation has not been hired to work on this specific issue.

But the solar industry says the audio confirms what it has argued all along: That Consumers for Smart Solar is a deliberate attempt to trick voters into voting against solar.

The debate in Florida underscores both the regulatory battles over net-energy metering playing out across the US between large power utilities and rooftop solar companies, as well as the looming battles that may flare up between large-scale renewables operators and behind-the-meter solar companies.

NextEra is the largest generator of wind and solar electricity in the US, through its massive fleet of large-scale wind and PV plants, and Atlanta-based Southern Company is a rapidly expanding player in the renewables market.

But both companies also own regulated utilities that stand to lose if large numbers of consumers install rooftop solar.