Messy Battles Over Energy Are on Ballot Across States

  • Florida solar vote is sly bid to help utilities, critics say
  • Washington State’s carbon tax splits environmental groups

As if choosing the next president of the U.S. wasn’t confusing enough, states from Nevada to Florida have energy measures on the ballot this year that have left many voters befuddled.

In Florida there’s an amendment that would make solar energy a constitutional right -- but it’s being fought by the solar industry. In Washington state a "stand-up economist" has gotten the nation’s first carbon-tax on the ballot -- but it’s opposed by environmentalists. And in Nevada casino owners are rolling the dice, pushing a measure to allow them to break free from their electric utility to take their chances buying power in an open market.

Taken together these items underscore how energy companies are facing a hodgepodge of pressures at the state level, prompting big fights outside the Beltway. The stakes are so high because there hasn’t been major federal energy legislation in nearly a decade.

There’s "the realization that we are not going to make progress at the federal level," said John Farrell, a director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based non-profit that advises local governments on community development.

In addition, clashes between utilities and rooftop solar installers; customers and their power suppliers are intensifying as wind and solar power drop in price, making them competitive with utilities’ long-established coal and nuclear plants.

Solar spending

In Florida, utilities run by companies such as Duke Energy Corp., NextEra Energy Inc. and Southern Co. have spent $20 million in support of Amendment 1, which would help curb the ability of competitors to install panels on rooftops. Weighing in on their side is the advocacy group for the elderly, the 60 Plus Association, with $1.7 million. Fighting against them is the state’s nascent solar industry; the Sunshine state ranks third in the nation for rooftop solar potential, but 14th in installed solar capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Opponents have spent about $2.4 million.

The one-page Florida amendment states that consumers have the constitutional right to use solar power -- a right solar advocates say they already have. But it goes on to declare that consumers who don’t have solar shouldn’t have to “subsidize” those who do, a provision that could lead to bigger charges for panel owners.

The amendment is needed to prevent an "unfair cost shift" to non-solar users for the costs of keeping the grid functioning, said Screven Watson, a board member of Consumers for Smart Solar, which is representing the utilities supporting the measure.

"We are all connected to the grid, including solar users," he said "You are charged on a consumption basis but part of what you pay is for the upkeep of the grid."

Direct Impact

Amendment 1 could lead regulators or lawmakers to impose fees on solar or roll back the state’s net-metering policies, according to David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean-energy advocacy group. Those fees could stunt the growth of solar in the Sunshine state, and that has led climate activists such as actor Mark Ruffalo and former Vice President Al Gore to weigh-in against it.

"They are trying to cloud the truth by putting forward a phony-baloney initiative that sounds like it protects solar. It doesn’t protect solar," Gore said at a joint appearance with Hillary Clinton in Miami on Oct. 11. "They are trying to fool you into amending your state constitution," he added, saying the measure would "just kill the solar industry."

A leaked recording, first reported in the Miami Herald, seemed to buttress Gore’s point about misdirection.

Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute, told an industry event the amendment "would completely negate anything" solar advocates "would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road." He told representatives from other states that "solar polls very well," and so a "political jiu-jitsu" is needed to promote their cause.

Watson said Consumers for Smart Solar was "not connected in anyway" with Nuzzo, and that there is nothing underhanded about the wording of the measure. Florida’s Supreme Court reviewed the amendment language and OK’ed it. While JMI does support the measure, Nuzzo "misspoke in reference to JMI partnering with Consumers for Smart Solar in any capacity," Dr. Bob McClure, president of the group, said in a statement.

A Saint Leo University poll released this week shows support for the measure dropped to 60 percent from 84 percent in September. Opposition to the measure from almost every major newspaper in the state is counteracting the financial advantage of the utilities, Frank Orlando, the poll center’s director, said in a statement. The initiative needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.

Evergreen State

In Washington, voters will decide on what could be the first carbon tax in the nation.

Supporters are facing opposition from the state’s main utilities such as Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary PacifiCorp and energy consumers such as Kaiser Aluminum and Nucor Corp., according to state filings. Unlike other environmental fights, in this case, the companies have also been joined by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.

"It’s weird that’s for sure," said Yoram Bauman, an economist and comedian who is spearheading the initiative through the grassroots group Carbon Washington. "They are the environmental community and they are opposing the only environmental measure on the ballot. Politics is a strange business."

If approved, I-732, as the measure is known, would be the largest carbon tax in North America. It would place a tax on carbon from petroleum products and electricity consumed in Washington starting at $15 per ton and rising to $25 per ton in 2018. It would then increase 3.5 percent a year plus inflation every year until it reaches $100 per ton.

The carbon tax would "almost immediately" raise the price of a gallon of gasoline in the state by 25 cents, according to No on 732, the group opposing the amendment, which is sponsored by the Association of Washington Business.

The measure could also cut emissions by 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of what 2 million cars emit annually.

But it doesn’t take the proceeds and invest in clean energy, and instead provides a direct rebate on the sales tax and to manufacturers. It also doesn’t do enough to help poor people, according to environmental opponents, such as the the Washington Environmental Council. The Union of Concerned Scientists has opted out of the fight altogether, taking "no position" on the measure.

"Members of the Club expressed deep concerns that the initiative does not include all that is needed for an equitable climate policy," the state’s Sierra Club chapter said in a statement. "Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this was not a decision reached lightly."

The most recent polling puts supporters of the measure ahead of opponents 42 percent to 37 percent, with 21 percent of voters still undecided. A majority is needed for it to pass.

Energy gamble

In Nevada, voters will decide if consumers and businesses should be able to choose their electricity supplier. A ballot initiative would begin the process of ending the electricity monopoly of NV Energy Inc., the utility unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Elon Musk and casinos such as the Las Vegas Sands Corp. support a campaign that could eventually lead to competition in the power market.

It would require the state constitution to be amended and the legislature draft a law by 2023 to create a competitive retail electricity market, ending NV Energy’s monopoly. If it passes this year, it will require another ballot measure in the future.

So far, supporters of the initiative have raised $2.4 million including $925,000 from Las Vegas Sands and $1.5 million from Switch LTD, a data center service provider, according to a state filings. Opponents have raised $850,000 with backers including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1245 and the Nevada State AFL-CIO.

NV Energy said it’s neutral on the measure.

(Corrects position of Union of Concerned Scientists in 22nd paragraph in story that ran Nov. 1.)

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