TAMPA — At first glance, an amendment to Florida’s constitution obliging the state to promote solar power and allowing homeowners and businesses to generate solar power on their property, in cahoots with a solar power company, might not do much harm. But it easily could do harm if it leads to even more taxpayer-financed subsidies to an industry that is long on promises but short on kilowatt-hours generated. It could do harm if it leads to requirements that utilities buy more pricy solar power and pass the cost on to their customers. This is what has happened elsewhere — we’ve seen this movie before.
The beneficiaries of such an amendment, being pushed for the 2016 ballot by a group called Floridians for Solar Choice, Inc., would be the hard-left, anti-free market environmental movement, bent on putting an end to fossil-fuel generated power, and the solar power industry, seeking a larger share of the energy market and more of the tax breaks and subsidies without which expensive solar power could not exist. It’s hard to imagine how such an amendment would benefit Floridians with no grudge against fossil fuels or with no skin in the solar power game.
Tory Perfetti, a Tampa marketing and advertising entrepreneur and chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice, says he has had some success convincing Tea Party members and other conservatives that his amendment is just the thing, and that it’s a blow for free-market capitalism. He had another opportunity Tuesday night when he appeared before more than 70 members and friends of Tampa 9-12, a Tea Party group. His pitch was opposed by James Taylor, senior fellow for environment and energy policy with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, who argued that Floridians can install solar equipment now if they wish to and the amendment, if adopted, would lead to nothing more than a bigger carve out for the solar industry.
Perfetti argued that solar power in Florida is being held back by regulatory burdens, and that the amendment he is boosting would open solar to the free market, drive down the cost of solar, and save Florida consumers money on their power bills. As it stands in Florida, electric utilities are protected monopolies and no one else is allowed to sell electric power. He said his amendment would just “open up the market, and give all of us a choice.”
Perfetti said he is not an advocate of solar particularly, but doesn’t like to see the state pick winners as they have in the case of protected electric utilities. Solar should have the opportunity to succeed or fail on its own merits.
Taylor countered that solar power is much more expensive to generate than power generated by fossil fuels and could not exist without government subsidies and requirements that utilities generate power, or purchase expensive power generated by “alternative’ or “renewable” fuels. This amendment, he says, would do nothing to change this. “Solar power can’t pay for itself,” he said. “Even the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank, says the cost of generating electricity by solar is three times as costly as fossil fuels.” Solar power wouldn’t last an hour on the open market, so the amendment has to be about something else.
Taylor braced Perfetti on the fact that Floridians for Solar Choice and its amendment drive is being funded mostly by a hard-left environmental group, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. SACE has received $2.6 million from the Energy Foundation, which received $3 million from billionaire environmentalist and anti-fossil fuel crusader Tom Steyer, Taylor said. Perfetti conceded his group’s initial efforts were funded by SACE but said that group would be accepting donations from regular folks. “We welcome anybody’s support,” he said.
Though Perfetti may claim free-market aims and a free-market pedigree — he’s says he is a lifetime conservative and Republican — his group’s financial benefactors have anything but strengthening free markets in mind.
Taylor said the amendment’s meat-axe language, specifically, “It shall be the policy of the state to encourage and promote local small-scale solar-generated electricity production and to enhance the availability of solar power to customers,” is an open-ended mandate that could easily be used to justify more subsidies, and more mandates for regulated utilities to purchase solar-generated power. The cost of this would be passed on to, guess who? Any grant writer who couldn’t drive subsidies through this language should probably consider legitimate work. Any legislator who couldn’t liberate tax dollars for a connected friend on the basis if this language is either inept or too honest for the room. (These last two sentences mine, not Taylor’s. But I wouldn’t expect an argument from him on them.)
There was no vote or show of hands at the end of the presentations. No accounting of which presenter swayed more of the congregation. My subjective reaction was that the applause for Taylor was enthusiastic, for Perfetti polite. At the end, Perfetti did not ask for an endorsement of his amendment. And no one offered, though several people told me afterward that they liked the idea. More said they didn’t.
Perfetti says that in addition to support from liberal environmentalists, many conservatives have signed on. But if he wants the support of Tampa 9-12, he still has some work to do.