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The sun could soon cease to shine in Florida. Or rather, its rays will not be powering many of its photovoltaic cells anytime soon — all thanks to the shadow big polluters, with the backing of some unlikely partners, have cast over the Sunshine State.

solarBelieve it or not, Florida is currently the U.S.’s fifth largest consumer of coal. According to an analysis this year from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the state spent $1.3 billion importing the fuel in 2012 from as far away as Colombia. Coal consumption has declined slightly in recent years since hydraulic fracturing has led to an increased abundance of domestic natural gas supplies. Yet, as UCS puts it, ”there is growing evidence” that gas, like coal, “poses significant and complex risks to consumers, the economy, public health and safety, land and water resources, and the climate.”

That a state that could power itself 25 times over using the sun would be so heavily reliant on fossil fuels is an irony that the Florida Public Service Commission decidedly chose to ignore when it convened on November 25. In a sweeping rollback of already modest renewable energy and conservation reforms, the commission quietly voted to allow its current solar rebate program to expire while slashing its 2019 conservation goals by a combined 90 percent at the behest of the investor-owned utilities it is charged with regulating.

“Utilities burn fuel to spin turbines to make electricity,” David Guest, an attorney with the Florida arm of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, told Planet Experts. “That’s their business. When you have a program that says we’re going to get our electricity from somewhere else, well, then they’re not going to make as much money, so it’s a bad idea for them. The utilities are trying to make it so they add cost to consumers and pay less.”

At Duke Energy, electricity saving targets were chopped down from 333 gigawatt hours to 21 GWH. At Florida Power and Light, from 229 GWH to 4 GWH. Instead of maintaining its solar rebate program, the commission will host brainstorming workshops on solar energy beginning in 2015.

“Florida’s utilities will go into the holidays with their biggest wishes this year,” the Tampa Bay Times reported, observing that while the commission effectively axed its solar rebate program, it approved “billions of dollars in new power plants that will come online in the next decade.” This includes a $1.5 billion natural gas-fired plant that will take the place of Duke’s Crystal River nuclear station.

Progress Energy, which Duke has since acquired, broke the facility’s 36-year-old reactor in 2009 during a bungled upgrade and repair job that left a crack in reactor’s concrete containment cast. Ratepayers have been picking up the tab ever since and will continue to do so for Duke’s new gas-fired plant, at a total cost of about $3 billion.

emissionsThe new power facility is an indication of the direction the state is heading — away from the sun and further into the bowels of the earth, where fracking is yielding a glut of gas. Florida Power and Light has asked the Public Service Commission to grant it permission to partner with Louisiana-based PetroQuest and conduct fracking operations in Oklahoma.

Though the utility could easily invest in the venture through an unregulated subsidiary, this way Florida ratepayers again foot the bill (a $190 million expense). Duke says it is following the case closely with the aim of filing a similar request and the commission could issue a decision in the matter by the end of this year.

Even as Florida ratepayers continue to fund costly fossil fuel ventures on the part of big utilities, concern for low-income customers, and people of color in particular, was used to justify the elimination of Florida’s solar rebate program and to justify further rollbacks.

“Their argument goes that all of the those electric lines and the maintenance they conduct is for 24-hour-a day usage,” said Guest, referring to Florida’s power providers and their supporters. “Solar customers are only on the grid for five or six hours a day while they’re getting all the benefits of lines being there all time. And that makes the cost go up for everybody else.”

In an editorial for the Tallahassee Democrat, John Marks, a former Public Service Commission chairman and current mayor of Tallahassee, applauded the commission’s November ruling.

“The costs of implementing renewable energy must not unfairly burden working class or low and fixed‐income consumers,” wrote the mayor, calling for the state’s net-metering program to be shelved next. Net-metering, which allows Floridians to sell excess electricity generated by their solar rooftops back to utilities, allows a “generally high‐wealth customer base to self‐generate electricity for use in their home or business,” according to Marks. “These consumers then sell any excess energy to the utility without paying their fair share for the use of the electric grid.”

Meanwhile, a commission hearings, Guest said he was surprised to “notice there was a close congruence between arguments made by Florida Power and Light and the local NAACP.”

A Public Service Commission memorandum summarizes testimony provided to it by the Florida Conference of the NAACP leading up to its decision to eliminate solar rebates. “Existing solar pilot programs should be allowed to expire,” it reads, since the rebate program amounts to a cross-subsidy “from low-income customers to high-income customers.”

The NAACP’s press office did not respond to requests from Planet Experts to comment on this article prior to its publication. However, the testimony appears inconsistent with the NAACP’s national policy positions in support of conservation, solar rebates and net-metering — coupled with local hiring practices and backing for minority-owned businesses — as mechanisms for reducing pollution that disproportionately impacts communities of color. While the Florida Conference’s intervention in the solar debate seems out of step with that of the wider organization, it is in line with fossil fuel lobby groups who have been waging a war against the sun for years now.

The shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for instance, has crafted numerous pieces of model legislation to be cloned and sent through state houses across the country.

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“The Electricity Freedom Act repeals the State of {insert state}’s requirement that electric distribution utilities and electric services companies provide _____ percent of their electricity supplies from renewable energy sources by ____,” opens a draft ALEC bill from 2012. Another, from the following year, begins, “The legislature finds that the current system of mandated purchase of renewable energy has created negative economic and environmental consequences. The high cost of renewable energy is paid by all state citizens, including those who already struggle to pay the cost of electricity.”

Hard to believe that an organization for the most part funded by billion dollar private prison operators, pharmaceutical corporations, big agricultural firms, financial institutions, and of course coal, gas and oil companies gives a damn for the least among us, but there you have it. Anti-solar legislation has stood on the docket of sixteen states in the past two years according to Energy and Policy Institute, for the most part promoted by ALEC and partners, including billionaire oil moguls, Charles and David Koch. Perhaps most notably, Arizona — like Florida, a sun-baked state — approved a $5 five dollar per month surtax on households utilizing solar energy. Four out of five of Arizona’s Public Service Commission members had ties to ALEC.

While Exchange Council has mainly channeled its efforts through conservative lawmakers, the Edison Electric Institute, the lobbying arm of the utility industry (Duke Energy is a member of both groups) has directed their attention to minority lawmakers. In 2012, the National Policy Alliance (NPA), a conglomeration of organizations for African-American elected officials that includes the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Conference of Black Mayors, passed a resolution against net-metering submitted by the Edison Institute. The policy resolution copied word-for-word a doppelganger resolution from ALEC.

As Grist reported at the time, “all Edison/NPA did was add in some African-American wording and seasoning.”

Earthjustice’s David Guest acknowledges that the primary beneficiaries of current renewable energy and conservation initiatives in Florida, as elsewhere in the country, are principally wealthy, white consumers who can afford to take part in such programs. But rather than keeping the sun off the grid, states like Florida should work to expand access to renewable technology so that everyone can bask equally in its benefits.

“If you get enough solar,” he said, “and it is certainly possible here, you can avoid spending billions on power plants. There’d be less pollution, less climate change and, ultimately, less cost to consumers.”

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