The view from Florida: Solar Energy proposal casts light on GOP schism

January 30, 2015

There are few things the GOP loves more than defending the coal industry and dismantling economic regulations. But what happens when these goals come into conflict?

This is the question confronting the Florida Republican Party as it considers the so-called Solar Choice ballot initiative. The initiative, which needs 682,000 signatures to make it onto the ballot in November, would remove regulations that give coal plants an unfair edge over solar energy sources.

As it stands, Florida law allows only investor-owned utilities to sell electricity. This prevents homeowners and small businesses from “net-metering,” or selling off excess electricity from whatever privately-owned solar panels they ,ay have to neighbors or back to the grid. Net-metering is the key to making solar power affordable for families and small business owners. By selling off their extra energy during the summer months, individuals can subsidize the cost of solar panel installation and compensate for the drop in production during winter months, making solar a smarter investment on their part.

The proposed initiative, which would amend the constitution to allow net-metering, is a no-brainer. It would begin to open up the market to affordable renewable energy, offset emissions from coal power plants, and provide a greater range of choices to consumers.

It is this last benefit that, counterintuitively, has captured the attention of members of the Florida Tea Party, making it an unlikely ally in the fight for what’s historically been liberal cause célèbre. The prohibition on net-metering, they argue, is an example of big government picking “winners and losers” in the energy sector—the same criticism leveled at Solyndra in 2011. For many conservatives, the new initiative is not an environmental issue but a free market one: individuals should have absolute freedom when it comes to producing, buying and selling electricity.

But not everyone in the GOP is happy with net-metering. The initiative has attracted the ire of the coal industry, which fears that an increasingly viable solar sector will cut into its long-standing energy monopoly.

The industry’s response has been typical: fear-mongering and misinformation.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative think tank funded by fossil fuel magnates the Koch brothers, has asserted that net-metering would “reduce the reliability of appliances and gadgets in your home” and would cause a 40 percent increase in electricity rates. This claim ignores a basic energy trend: according to the Union of Concerned Scientists the price of coal continues to rise while prices for solar panels have dropped 60% since 2011. It also runs up against the testimony of the utilities themselves, which rejected the notion that the price of electricity would be much affected. Nevertheless, misinformation from AFP and other interest groups has proven insidious, surfacing in efforts to block solar energy proposals in Louisiana and Idaho.

The net-metering proposal has cleaved Florida Republicans in two. On the one hand are the Tea Party populists—instinctively wary of artificial monopolies in the energy sector and supportive of consumer choice. On the other, the Republicans firmly in the pocket of the Koch brothers and Big Coal.

The latter group has made it clear that, despite its veneer of conservatism, it is willing to compromise on its stated values if the price is right. The Koch brothers and their shills in the Florida statehouse subscribe to a libertarian ideology, but only insofar as it advances their economic interests. When their personal philosophy runs up against the realities of their business model, there is little doubt which of the two will win out.

All of which puts progressives in the somewhat strange position of rooting for Tea Party ideologues on an issue of great environmental importance. The fact is, though, that the Tea Party base is in a unique position to counter AFP’s propaganda and mobilize voters in favor of solar. Just look at the so-called “Green Tea Coalition” in Georgia, or Barry Goldwater, Jr.’s libertarian groundswell in Arizona. Both forged unlikely coalitions with progressive groups and environmentalists to fight the Koch brothers’ messaging. Both used their party machinery to get voters to the polls. And both set their respective states off on the march to energy independence.

The Koch Brothers have hijacked the GOP. If Tea Partiers want to achieve energy independence, they must first declare political independence from Big Coal and its toxic money. Only then can they forge a new Green Tea Coalition, secure the passage of the Solar Choice initiative, and set Florida on the path to sustainability.

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