The fight over solar power in Florida has gotten awfully shady lately. Two competing organizations are circulating petitions related to solar power access in the Sunshine State. Floridians for Solar Choice is pushing for an amendment to open the solar marketplace, allowing consumers to do business with companies beyond just FPL and other utilities. The other group, Consumers for Smart Solar, is backed by utility companies and the Koch brothers and intends to keep just a few companies in control of the solar monopoly.
For the issues to be placed on the 2016 state ballot, each group must collect 683,149 signatures by February 1 and then win 60 percent of the vote next November 8. And there's some sketchy business at work as signature-collectors hustle for John Hancocks.
Just last week, I experienced it firsthand. As I was leaving Publix in North Beach, I was approached by a man who asked me to sign a ballot "for solar choice." When I asked him which of the two initiatives my signature would support, he told me "Consumers for Smart Solar" and then said, "It supports more solar power."
I looked at him, dumbfounded. “But,” he said, pulling out a different clipboard, “I have the other one too if you want to sign that one instead.”
Now I was really baffled. How could the same person be pushing both amendments?
Turns out the answer is — quite simply — money. The petition-gatherers have been hired mostly through third-party contractors, and they're out to make a buck. Not surprisingly, the well-heeled Consumers for Smart Solar offers its petition-gatherers more money per signature.
“Most of the petition-gatherers work on contract,” says Alissa Jean Schafer of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is backing the Floridians for Solar Choice amendment. “They’ll carry whatever petition they choose to, and there’s no regulation saying someone can’t carry both. That’s their prerogative as a contractor.”
In another confusing detail, Consumers for Smart Solar even uses the word "choice" in their ballot, titling it "Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice." (The title of the Floridians for Solar Choice ballot is: "Limits or Prevents Barriers to Local Solar Electricity Supply.")
Last week, the Miami Herald reported on a number of people who have felt misled by signature-gatherers, citing confusion and even blatant lies.
But organizers of the utility-backed initiative told the Herald they have no intention of misleading voters.
“It defies all logic to suggest that we think confusing our amendment with theirs will help us get signatures,” Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Consumers for Smart Solar, told the Herald. “If that is happening, we want to know about it because we won’t tolerate it.”
Currently, Floridians for Solar Choice is ahead in signatures collected, with 207,018; Consumers for Smart Solar has logged 154,747.
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As Consumers for Smart Solar tries in earnest to catch up, it’s being bolstered by a huge new influx of cash — most of which will bankroll signature-gathering efforts. In October, the group raised $2.3 million. That's compared to the $457,683 raised by Floridians for Solar Choice and triple what the group has raised this entire year.
Schaffer recommends that now through February, people look closely at each ballot before signing and not rely on the word of the petition-gatherer.
“Look at the title of the ballot so you can understand,” she says. “You don’t even have to read the whole thing, but be sure you’re signing the one you actually want to sign.”