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Consumers for Smart Solar launches new phase of ballot initiative campaign

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Consumers for Smart Solar kicked-off a new phase of its effort to pass a solar energy amendment to the state constitution at a press conference Tuesday.

The campaign was once seen as merely a foil for a rival amendment, pitched by environmental groups like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. That initiative ran out of gas when it failed to gather enough petitions to appear on the November ballot, leaving Consumers for Smart Solar’s proposed amendment all alone in the contentious debate over how Florida should proceed with its solar energy policy.

A cadre of speakers – including a former utilities regulator on the Public Service Commission and two former Democratic pols – tried to shift the debate away from attacking their erstwhile rival as a “shady” out-of-state effort to create unregulated solar energy monopolies, and towards a more positive message of progressing the state’s energy policy via their alternative.

Appropriating the phrase “Amendment 1” for their initiative, the initiative’s supporters fought against perceptions the bill was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” to quote an opponent’s reaction to the high court’s decision to allow to language on the ballot, and said the amendment would include potent protections against fraud and abuse by solar companies its fallen counterpart would not have.

“Amendment 1 is good for the environment, it is good for consumers and it is good for Florida,” said Dick Batchelor, a former Democratic member of the House. “[I]n looking at ways to increase the amount of our energy that comes from the sun, it is essential that we do so in a way that safeguards consumers – particularly our seniors – with commonsense consumer protection rules that benefit every consumer, and that we have all come to expect.  Amendment 1 is a straightforward plan for the future of solar energy in Florida.”

“It protects consumers’ right to choose solar from any provider, while providing for consumer protection laws that keep solar scam artists out of Florida. That’s the best way toward a bright future for solar energy in our state,” continued Batchelor, driving home the theme of the morning press conference.

The new phase of the initiative to get the language passed – which backers are branding ‘Yes on 1 for the Sun’ – follows a concerted fundraising and electoral effort as well. The group spent nearly $268,000 in March alone on polling, advertising, and strategy costs.

Former Public Service Commissioner Matthew Carter, who spoke on behalf of the amendment’s passage, bolstered other speakers’ arguments saying the language would in fact limit the spread of residential solar panels where it to be adopted by voters.

“Read Amendment 1 – and you will see that it was not written to benefit any one industry.  It is written to benefit consumers.  It establishes a framework in our constitution that cements important rights and protections with regard to solar energy, so that they cannot be weakened or ignored by special interests or policy makers,” said Carter.

“In fact, while Amendment 1 doesn’t preclude any other approach to solar energy in Florida, it merely makes certain that in this ever-changing world of solar, individual citizens will always have the right to generate their own electricity from their own solar equipment.  And, it allows state and local governments to continue their current role of ensuring safe and reliable energy, while ensuring that consumers are dealt with fairly by companies that provide energy services,” Carter continued.

When asked about yet another solar amendment on the ballot in August – proposed by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff brandes – former Florida Democratic Party chair Screven Watson said the group would remain neutral.

Floridians for Solar Choice issued the following statement after their erstwhile rivals’ meeting:

“Nothing new was revealed in today’s press conference hosted by Consumers for Smart Solar, only more deception from high-paid consultants hired by the monopoly utilities,” said Stephen A. Smith, a board member of the group and executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The only people their proposed amendment would protect are utility shareholders. Period. This amendment seeks to limit non-utility solar options in Florida by enshrining the status quo and providing the utilities with leverage to continue to control their customers.”

“Neither Florida’s solar industry nor Floridians for Solar Choice are fooled by their slick marketing campaign,” said Smith.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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