A small town in Miami-Dade County — South Miami: population 12,000 — wants to become the first in Florida with an ordinance requiring every new residential home, building, or apartment complex to install solar panels. Residents building new homes would then pay less to Florida Power & Light, the only power company in town, which still generates more than 70 percent of its energy from fossil fuels and operates a nuclear plant that environmentalists say is polluting Miami-Dade's drinking water.
But ahead of a final vote on the plan, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm has swooped in to blast residents with robocalls urging them to fight the bill. South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard tells New Times that at least four locals have messaged him to complain about the robocalls, which he says incorrectly claim that every homeowner would have to buy solar panels at costs of up to $25,000.
Why would the D.C. firm, Family Businesses for Affordable Energy, care enough to mount a counter-campaign against a city as tiny as South Miami?
Stoddard has a theory: He's convinced the shady robocalls are being paid for by the power industry. The mayor says the sneaky phone calls echo FPL's fraudulent solar amendment that was defeated at the ballot box last fall.
But both FPL and the lobbyist firm deny that South Florida's electric company is behind the calls. The lobbying group says it received "no payments from utility companies or their trade groups."
Via email yesterday, FPL spokesperson Alys Daly said, "I checked and we are not aware of any involvement with this group or the Robo calls [sic]."
This much is clear: Family Businesses for Affordable Energy is deeply tied to the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), the trade-and-lobbying group for the electrical-equipment industry. In fact, both the executive director, Alex Ayers, and his lobbying partner, Palmer Schoening, will host a seminar at an NAED conference today from 2 to 5 p.m., in which they'll teach other business owners and lobbyists how to best advocate for the NAED's government agenda. Tomorrow the people who attended Ayers' seminar will then meet with politicians on Capitol Hill.
NAED's website says Ayers and Schoening work "very closely with the National Association of Electrical Distributors."
There are other signs the group is deeply tied to electrical distributor trade groups. Ayers' website advocates for the exact same policies that were included in last year's Amendment 1, which attempted to trick pro-solar Floridians into voting for slyly restrictive language that would have made it more difficult for residents to get solar power. Their site includes suggestions such as levying extra fees on customers who sell excess solar energy back to utility firms and spreading the message that nonsolar customers are forced to "subsidize" solar customers on the grid.
Stoddard says he has other reasons to believe FPL is tied to the robocalling effort. He says an FPL representative called him months ago to say that the utility opposed the solar panel ordinance; the rep also implied that the rule change could violate state law, Stoddard says. Nationally, the utility industry has lobbied for "utility-owned solar," which comprises solar farms run by companies like FPL, which consumers still need to pay a monthly bill to access. If every home in America were to have a solar panel installed on top, utility companies could take a hefty hit to their bottom lines.
"What I do know is that FPL inquired at the city several times and then put a shot across our bow, and then this firm starting robocalling people," Stoddard says. "I’ll let people connect the dots."
(Contacted about Stoddard's claims, Daly, the FPL spokesperson, implied Stoddard was somehow profiting from the solar industry, a claim the mayor strongly denies.)
New Times asked the lobbying firm whether FPL or its parent company, NextEra, paid, contracted, or "ask[ed] in any way" for the robocalls in South Miami. Ayers denied that his group had received any money from the utility. Instead, Ayers said his lobbying group was concerned that South Miami's plan did not include safeguards to "mitigate fire risks" and to fix concerns that the panels could fly off during hurricanes.
"We have never received any payment from FPL or NextEra Energy," Ayers said via email. "We felt it should be included in our larger project to protect homeowners and small businesses from fraudulent companies trying to scam consumers who want to install solar."
Ayers also denied that the group has taken payments from utility-industry trade groups, such as the Edison Electric Institute, which FPL and NextEra pay to lobby on their behalf. (NAED, which Ayers clearly has ties to, represents electricity distributors, not power-generating utilities such as FPL).
Stoddard isn't backing down, though. In a newsletter sent to South Miami residents yesterday, the mayor accused the power industry — and FPL specifically — of working to tank the proposal. His newsletter reads as follows:
Did you get a robocall urging you to oppose a solar ordinance in South Miami?
Many people did. Let me explain what’s going on.
South Miami is on the verge of making history, becoming the first municipality in the Sunshine State to require at least some solar energy production on new residential construction (not on existing houses). The idea was first rolled out in four California municipalities, beginning in 2013. The results in California have been positive: “The most transferable lesson may simply be the readiness with which Lancaster residents adapted to solar requirements, said industry officials, especially because the city is largely Republican.” [Marketplace]. Encouraged by the municipal experience, the State of California, an independent signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, is considering making solar a statewide requirement for new construction [Greentech Media].
When South Miami first went public with a draft of our ordinance, modeled after those in California, the City received a phone call from FPL, warning us to check the Florida Statutes (which of course we already had). No surprise FPL was anxious. In the last election cycle, electric monopolies led by FPL and Duke energy spent $29 million to fight the development of solar energy in Florida [Tampa Bay Times].
Our ordinance took a year to develop and was approved on first reading by the City Commission. It went on to the City’s Planning Board for further review, where, after an evening of intense exploration and discussion, the five community members who comprise the board unanimously approved the ordinance. It will come before the Commission for second reading on Tuesday.
In advance of the Commission meeting, South Miami residents were bombarded with robocalls from a lobbying firm in D.C., misleading residents with claims that the City was proposing to require solar power on existing residential construction. One resident wrote me: “Hey, Phil! Got a robocall from this outfit today badmouthing the City’s proposed solar ordinance. States that it ‘will require solar on all new houses and existing houses in the city.’ FPL highjinx?”
Stoddard admits that he doesn't know for certain who funded the operation.
"Let’s put it this way: At this point, I have no communications indicating who is funding the initiative," Stoddard tells New Times. "Nor do I expect to. The lobbying firm not required to disclose who is paying them, and FPL is not required to disclose if they are paying the lobbying firm."
Stoddard says that the robocalls have been "really clumsy" so far and that the lobbying firm called his house when he wasn't home.
"They even called our planning department and urged our planning director to oppose it," he says. "She was pretty amused."
Here's a full transcript of the robocall, which New Times obtained:
Hello, this is Family Businesses for Affordable Energy. I want to talk to you today about an ordinance being considered by the City of South Miami. This ordinance would mandate that all new homes, in addition to existing homes, install solar on their rooftop. This could cost you as much as $25,000. Also, the city has not conducted an impact study to see how it would affect businesses like you. And the ordinance does not have basic consumer protections or safety requirements for installation. Will you join Family Businesses for Affordable Energy in telling your city commissioner to oppose this ordinance? You can reach the city commission by dialing 305-663-6340. Once again, that is 305-663-6340. You can call Family Businesses for Affordable Energy at 202-787-1399.
The lobbyists' ties to the electricity industry are obvious. In addition to straight-up hosting an energy-firm lobbying seminar today, Ayers and Schoening have also been quoted extensively in The Electrical Distributor, NAED's trade magazine. In the June 2017 issue, Shoening and Ayers bragged to NAED members that the pair was excited about helping NAED persuade D.C. lawmakers to reform the tax code in their favor — by repealing the estate tax for the ultrawealthy.
"This is a unique time in history right now," Shoening explained. "For the first time in 30 years, we actually have the potential to reform the tax code. Therefore, we really want to emphasize the importance of members coming to advocate on these issues."
In December 2016, Ayers and Schoening also wrote articles advocating for wind-industry tax credits in Oklahoma, which directly benefit utility companies, including NextEra, which owns multiple wind farms in that state.
Likewise, Family Businesses for Affordable Energy runs a website called MakeSolarSafe.com, which is dedicated to sharing supposed "solar horror stories" (their words) about home-solar vendors.
"South Miami Failing to Protect Consumers in Rush to Install Rooftop Solar Panels," a blog post on MakeSolarSafe.com reads.
The website has published scores of articles attempting to tie the home-solar industry to alleged fraud, foreclosures, hidden costs, predatory capitalism, and "fire risks." Indeed, the website pointed out that a single dentist's office burst into flames in upstate New York in 2015, as well as a handful of other instances in which a few panels caught fire.
The website has not once published an article critical of utility-owned solar panels or the utility industry in general.
Curiously, the website's "Legislative Solutions" page advocates for virtually the same language that was included in last year's Amendment 1, which FPL backed and was later outed as an admitted trick to get Floridians to give up access to home solar panels.
At the heart of that bill was a concept called "net metering," or "net energy metering" (NEM), in which consumers with solar panels can force power companies to buy back excess energy they generate with their panels. Amendment 1 would have allowed state regulators to end net metering or heap extra costs on customers who take advantage of the program.
Family Businesses for Affordable Energy advocates for those exact same policies on its "Legislative Solutions" page, which says that lawmakers should "require NEM customers to pay a higher monthly fixed charge, thereby reducing the cost shift," and work on "reforming NEM so that private rooftop solar customers who use the energy grid, pay for the grid."
The lobbying firm also warns that nonsolar customers have to "subsidize" the costs home-solar customers generate to utility firms — which was also a concern echoed nearly verbatim in Amendment 1. (In October, the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau obtained audio of a utility insider, Sal Nuzzo, admitting that Amendment 1 was written to trick voters into negating anything environmentalists "would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.")
Utility companies across the nation have waged war against net metering. But Ayers denies his group is an astroturf organization advocating for those same companies.
"As a representative of hundreds of small and family-owned businesses across the U.S. and Florida, we want to ensure that any ordinances or legislation passed protects homeowners, small businesses, and consumers," Ayers said via email. "The proposed ordinance in South Miami, while well-intentioned, does not include strict installation codes that mitigate fire risks and protect first responders or stringent hurricane and wind codes to address the specific needs of homes in Florida. We support responsible solar, but this ordinance does not have the necessary protections for small businesses, homeowners, and first responders. We are calling for the Mayor and commissioners to re-evaluate the ordinance and include the necessary protections for businesses and homeowners before bringing the ordinance to a vote."
(H/T Alan Farago/Eye on Miami)
Update: The NAED told New Times in a written statement that it had nothing to do with the robocall campaign:
The National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) has no interest or position in Miami’s solar debate and is not involved with the efforts of Family Businesses for Affordable Energy (FBAE).The Association has never supported or funded any effort to oppose solar energy initiatives in any state, local, or federal legislative body. We are a trade organization representing electrical distributors and wholesalers, helping our members remain the channelof choice for electrical supplies.