The following viewpoint is from David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute. For our viewpoint guidelines, please go here.
Americans who are concerned about climate change are shell-shocked over the election of Donald Trump, who has claimed climate change was a hoax created by China and promised to end federal support for clean energy, neuter the EPA, and kill the Paris agreement.
If Trump follows through on these threats, it will cause irreversible damage. But an election result buried by the chaos of Tuesday night offers a thin silver lining to the dark clouds gathering on the climate horizon: the surprise defeat of a deceptive ballot initiative in Florida called “Amendment 1.”
Florida’s investor-owned electric utilities – Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light (FPL), Gulf Power and Tampa Electric – spent $20 million pushing Amendment 1 and branding it as “pro-solar,” when in fact it would have undermined customer-owned solar power in Florida. Amendment 1’s passage would have paved the way for the utilities to add fees to solar customers’ bills and to cut net metering payments for the extra power they produce. They could have killed the nascent rooftop solar industry in Florida, which already lags behind far smaller states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Amendment 1’s defeat offers a road map for how to keep the clean energy economy growing under a Trump presidency: turn to the states. During the George W. Bush years, wind and solar power grew rapidly, despite federal hostility, thanks to supportive policies in both red and blue states. That’s not surprising, as Americans across the political spectrum, then and now, overwhelmingly support clean energy. A President Trump can’t block that progress, but another obstacle can: electric utilities.
Utilities profit when they build more power plants and transmission lines, which they can only do if people buy more electricity. Distributed solar threatens that outdated business model by offering people the choice of making their own power, so utilities have waged war on rooftop solar, and Amendment 1 revealed their battle plan:
Instead, they advocate for “smart solar” and “solar done right” – code for large solar farms that utilities own, not customers. But it’s a ruse; Duke Energy told Florida regulators that it planned to generate a mere 2.2% of its power from solar energy in 2025, and FPL reports that it will be 1% solar in that year. Duke and FPL are instead investing heavily in gas, as are many other utilities.
Florida voters proved that they wouldn’t be fooled. The utilities’ “pro-solar” message crumbled after the Energy and Policy Institute and the Center for Media and Democracy released an audio recording confirming Amendment 1 was a “political jiu-jitsu” campaign designed to trick pro-solar voters. Once the truth was out, support cratered.
Second, utilities try to divide environmentalists from low-income advocates and communities of color, using front groups to argue that rooftop solar is only for the rich, who “shift the costs” to poor people. It’s more deception: a host of studies have shown that the benefits that rooftop solar customers provide to the wider grid outweigh the costs.
Low-income communities and communities of color are refusing to be pawns in the utilities’ game. Black and Latino leaders spoke out against Amendment 1, noting that they want policies that result in more solar for their communities, not less. The NAACP nationally has been a forceful advocate for rooftop solar power, and polls show that communities of color support clean energy at the highest rates of all Americans.
Last, utilities use their financial might to buy political power. In addition to the $20 million that Florida’s utilities spent backing Amendment 1, they spent another $9.3 million on campaign contributions to legislators this cycle. Utilities’ influence peddling will never go away, but the pro-solar movement is learning to counter it via grassroots organizing, as it did effectively in Florida.
If other utilities follow their Florida brethren’s game plan, they too will unite their opponents into broad movements against them, and politically sensitive regulators will take notice. FPL’s war on solar power is already having this effect. Regulators in Hawaii, rightfully skeptical of FPL’s record of blocking solar in Florida, rejected its parent company NextEra’s bid to buy Hawaii’s electric utility. In Texas, where NextEra wants to buy Oncor, regulators are expressing their own concerns.
Nevadans – many still outraged at NV Energy’s hostility toward rooftop solar in the net metering battle there – voted Tuesday to strip the utility of its monopoly status.
These results should send a loud alarm to utilities and their investors that every attack they launch at rooftop solar will boomerang to erode their customers’ trust and weaken their standing with regulators.
There is only one way out of the jam for utilities: they have to adapt their business models and find ways to co-thrive with distributed resources. Some are trying to do that, albeit at the behest of regulators, but most seem intent on wasting time fighting a war they are destined to lose. Customers are demanding solar, the market forces behind solar cannot be stopped, and a Trump presidency will not change those facts.
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