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Tea Party Members and Environmentalists Join Forces in Support of Solar Energy

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Tea Party members and environmentalists typically make strange bedfellows. But in Florida those groups are coming together over the idea that small-scale, distributed solar energy should be not only allowed but encouraged—and that big utility companies should not stand in their way.

Florida liberals and conservatives agree that solar panel owners should be allowed to sell electricity without going through utility companies.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

You might expect a group called Conservatives for Energy Freedom to be lobbying for the "freedom" of fossil fuel companies from regulations that prevent them from polluting, especially given the spate of anti-renewable legislation being pushed by rightwing lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and passed by Republican legislatures and governors in states like Ohio and Arizona. But you'd be wrong.

Instead, this group hopes to put on the 2016 ballot an amendment to the Florida constitution that would to allow businesses or property owners who generate solar energy to sell it directly to others. Currently under Florida law, only utility companies are allowed to sell electricity to consumers.

The ballot summary says it "limits or prevents government and electric utility imposed barriers to supplying local solar electricity. Local solar electricity supply is the non-utility supply of solar generated electricity from a facility rated up to 2 megawatts to customers at the same or contiguous property as the facility. Barriers include government regulation of local solar electricity suppliers’ rates, service and territory, and unfavorable electric utility rates, charges or terms of service imposed on local solar electricity customers."

The chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice, the official political group for the ballot measure, is Tampa resident Tony Perfetti, the founder of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. In 2012, he unsuccessfully challenged a sitting legislator in the Republican primary, running to his right as a hardcore opponent of immigration. The ballot group's treasurer is George Cavros, Florida energy policy attorney at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, a group that works on issues relating to fighting climate change and the destruction of the environment. That group's members most likely have few points of agreement with Perfetti or with the Republican Liberty Caucus of Tampa Bay, one of the groups supporting the solar initiative, on other policies.

And Tea Party support for what most would perceive as a liberal issue seems to be growing.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, "Perfetti is working with Georgia Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley, who has pledged to push for more solar in Florida. Dooley has successfully pressed other regulators and policymakers for more solar in neighboring Georgia. Dooley said the reason the solar efforts have been successful in Republican-dominated areas is that opening up the free market and giving people choice is a core conservative principle. 'Conservatives will be out front on this to give Floridians choice and a voice,' Dooley said. 'All too often, the only voice that is heard is the voice of these very powerful and deep-pocketed monopoly utilities."

The measure was approved for petition circulation just before Christmas. Proponents must now collect 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1, 2016 in order to place it on the ballot.  They plan to hold a press conference next week to launch their full-scale signature collection effort.

Florida utilities have been fighting the growth of rooftop solar, claiming it shifts the cost of maintaining the electric grid and power plants to fewer and poorer customers. In November, the state's regulatory Public Service Commission, under pressure from big utility companies, voted to end solar rebates at the end of 2015 and to gut its energy efficiency goals.

But it's all for the good of the consumer, say the utilities. Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs told the Tampa Bay Times, "We will evaluate the proposal and support the ones that are fair and beneficial to all customers." It added, "Duke Energy Florida also said it wants to ensure any proposal benefits all customers."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

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Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

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The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."