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Battle over solar power heats up as proponents fend off attacks from Americans for Prosperity

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The drive to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year that would allow Floridians more choice about using solar power has enjoyed quick success, and furious push-back from their opponents.

On Saturday, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, one of the groups pushing for a constitutional amendment in 2016 on solar, blasted the group Americans for Prosperity for what they claim are inaccurate talking points that the group has been issuing..

“AFP frequently mentions the subsidies for solar, but fails to bring up the fact fossil fuel and nuclear have been very heavily subsidized since 1932 and still are,” says Debbie Dooley, Conservatives for Energy Freedom co-founder. “AFP doesn’t seem to have an issue with subsides if it is in the financial interests of their major donors. For the record, I oppose ALL energy subsidies.”

Florida is one of only five states that prohibit residents from buying electricity from private companies that will put solar panels on their home or business. Advocates say that prohibition limits customer choice and blocks the growth of a clean, homegrown energy source.

Last month organizers with Floridians for Solar Choice, the umbrella group united around the effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, announced they had already gathered 100,000 signatures in their effort, and said nearly 1,000 people had joined their campaign. (They need over 683,000 to get on the ballot.)

In their email issued on Saturday, Conservatives for Energy Freedom listed a page of what they said were talking points that AFP was using to oppose the solar amendment. Among the most explosive is that Floridians for Energy Solar Choice is simply a “front” for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the progressive environmental group that has been pushing for more solar power options in Florida for years. AFP says that SACE is funded completely by the California based Energy Foundation, “with ties to Tom Steyer and other liberal activists.”

Steyer is the San Francisco-based former hedge fund manager who has made it his mission to combat climate change by supporting political candidates who feel the same way and opposing those who don’t. His NextGen Climate group invested heavily in ads last fall against Rick Scott in the Florida gubernatorial race.

No one from SACE responded to our request for comment on Sunday. Stephen Smith, executive director with the group, told the Tampa Bay Times that his organization had never received money directly from Steyer and “there is no Tom Steyer money associated with this effort at this point.” Smith did say that the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund is “providing some early support for this effort.”

Andrew Malave, communications director with Americans for Prosperity, told Florida Politics that his organization will be hosting a news conference on Tuesday to address the issue.  “We should not favor one source of energy over the other in the Constitution or anywhere else,” he wrote in an email. “Solar cannot compete in a free market, it relies on government mandates and taxpayer-funded subsidies to make it feasible.”

Malave also cited a study by the Louisiana Public Service Commission last week that “found net metering shifted millions of dollars of costs from solar users to other ratepayers.”

He was referring to study by David Dismukes of Acadian Consulting that said  that the state’s 50-percent tax credit for installing new solar panels was a boondoggle, costing the state at least $89 million more than the benefits created.

But that study has been strongly criticized by solar advocates for being biased. Dismukes is an LSU economist who has done work for utility companies and the oil and gas industry.

Tory Perfetti with Conservatives for Energy Freedom says the ballot proposal simply opens the energy market in Florida to freedom of choice.

“This initiative will not mandate the purchase of solar nor will you find anywhere in the ballot language anything that says that solar will be subsidized, so to say otherwise is false,” he said in a statement.

“I have said and will continue to say to all individuals who inquire as to what this amendment is about to go and read it as the language is clear,” Perfetti added. “This Amendment will provide a net win for both Florida citizens and businesses. I am fully confident that the citizens of Florida will not be misled by false statements that have no validity or legitimacy to back them up.

“I am and have been a Conservative since I was young, and it is disappointing to think that AFP would try to mislead people into thinking that this Amendment is not good for Florida and it’s people when anyone who reads the ballot can see what it does, which is allow commerce to be conducted.”

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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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