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League of Women Voters to organize solar co-ops beginning in St. Petersburg

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The League of Women Voters in Florida is going big on solar power this year. They’re putting their political muscle behind supporting one solar constitutional amendment on the ballot next month, while opposing another such measure in November. And somewhat outside their normal lane, they’re also going to organize solar co-ops to negotiate steep discounts on rooftop solar for homeowners across the state.

“We are extremely excited to present to you today our plans to make solar the number one issue, and making Florida the number one state for solar in our country,” said LWV president Pamela Goodman on a conference call Thursday morning. “This is an educational effort and an advocacy effort.”

The League is strongly behind Amendment 4, the bipartisan supported constitutional amendment that will give a break on the intangibles tax that will go a long way in helping small businesses and commercial buildings utilize solar power. That will be on the August 30 primary ballot.

As much as the League supports that solar power proposal, they’re as equally opposed to Amendment 1 on the ballot this November, which the League contends is nothing more than a “deceptive” measure designed to do nothing more than maintain the state’s public utilities control over solar power.

The most interesting development, however, is that the League is partnering with a group called FL SUN, which will organize solar co-ops to negotiate steep discounts on rooftop solar for homeowners across the state. The campaign will begin in St. Petersburg and Orange County, with plans underway to quickly expand to Brevard and Volusia Counties, Sarasota, Alachua and many more. League officials say that joining is a co-op is not a commitment to purchase solar panels. The co-op solicits competitive bids from local installers and chooses the one that is best for the group. Co-op members then each get an individualized proposal for their home that reflects the group discount. At that point, group members can decide if they would like to go solar.The FL SUN concept has worked successfully in other states and locations including Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. More than 1,200 homeowners have gone solar through the co-ops.

The co-ops are made up of homeowners and specific geographic areas that are interested to go solar, said Angela DeMonbreun, FL SUN’s state director. She says the organization will help these home owners learn about solar and then solicit bids from area installers.

“FL SUN acts as a neutral third party consumer advocate working with both the group members and the installer the group selects to ensure the process goes smoothly,” said DeMonbreun. “FLSUN is solar  neutral, thus fostering a community driven process, by getting the groups together and selecting one installer,” adding that co-op members can save up to twenty percent of a cost to their installation.

League officials say anyone interested should check out the new website. FL SUN’s goal, they maintain, isn’t simply to get more people to join the ranks of people using solar power, it’s also to build a community of solar supporters “so that we can ensure our state has fair policies in place that allow even more people to go solar and further strengthen support here in Florida,” said DeMonbreun.

For much of 2015, there were two dueling groups trying to get their own solar power constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot. One of them was Floridians for Solar Choice, a coalition of  Tea Party activists and liberal environmentalists that aimed toexpand solar choice in the Sunshine State by allowing customers the option to power their homes or businesses with solar power and who provides it to them. The measure was fiercely opposed by the state’s biggest public utilities like Duke Energy, TECO, and Florida Power & Light, who all filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court opposing the amendment. That measure ultimately failed to generate enough signatures by the qualifying period, and is aiming now to get their meager onto2018 ballot.

However, those same public utilities have poured millions of dollars into supporting a solar power constitutional amendment backed by Consumers for Smart Solar, which will be listed on the November ballot as Amendment 1. It is being opposed by the League of Women Voters.

“It is a deceptive ballot (measure) that is set up to do nothing more than perpetuate the utilities control over the electric market and limit solar power option to customers, said Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the chief group behind Floridians for Solar Power. “It claims to provide new solar rights, but it actually does not provide any new solar rights whatsoever.” And he said that it attempts to put language in the state constitution that states that people who currently have solar power are being subsidized by people who do not have solar. There is no factual basis to that at all.”

“We are not surprised by their opposition,” says Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar. “However, Consumers for Smart Solar believes Amendment 1 gives Florida a historic opportunity to advance solar energy while protecting consumers, and we are committed to running a strong campaign to reach every voter. “

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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