Utilities use shady tactics to maintain their ‘power’

We were saddened – but not at all surprised – when The New York Times broke the story about how utility companies cultivated National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) chapters around the country. With big donations, the utilities were able to get NAACP chapters to work against renewable efforts, helping to “stymie the spread of solar panels on residential rooftops and cut energy efficiency standards at the behest of the energy industry.”

We know that the energy industry has used money and influence to maintain its market advantage and slow the growth of rooftop solar but this story really brings to light how far utilities are willing to go with their manipulation tactics. (Read The Times’ article here.)

While this case is particularly egregious – manipulating leaders of a nonprofit advocacy group to support the utilities’ agenda, to the detriment of the very people the nonprofit represents – this type of behavior extends to numerous target populations, using a variety of strategies to rig the game in the utilities’ own favor. The situation with the N.A.A.C.P. is not an isolated instance – it’s a pattern of behavior to influence local, state and national messaging and policy against solar. One only has to look locally to see utility support for area Chambers of Commerce, their prominent sponsorships, and to see utility representatives serving on a plethora of local boards.

In a November 2019 South Florida Sun Sentinel article, “FPL spends millions to sway lawmakers. The result can affect your electric bill,” the author writes, “Lobbying and campaign donations help FPL limit competition and hang onto its monopoly powering 5 million homes and businesses, which can lead to higher electric bills, environmentalists and watchdog groups contend.”

The article asserts that the lobbying of the governor, legislators and the Florida Public Service Commission (which regulates electric utilities) works. In 2019 alone, FPL was allowed by the Florida Public Service Commission to keep nearly $800 million in tax savings rather than returning to consumers, to collect $1.3 billion for Hurricane Irma recovery without any review of the costs, and to provide less detailed reporting on the costs of a 30-year project to bury power lines underground.

Although many states deregulated their energy markets in the 1990s and early 2000s, Florida has remained dedicated to preserving the utilities’ monopoly over distributing energy. The utilities have been dedicated to preserving their lock on the market as well. In response to an effort by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to get a “solar choice” initiative on the 2016 ballot in 2015, the utilities created – and poured money into – a fake grassroots group, called “Consumers for Smart Solar.” They offered a competing measure, messaged as pro-solar, but it would actually have limited solar rooftop expansion while maintaining the utilities’ monopoly for years to come, getting that measure on the ballot as “Amendment 1.” They spent nearly $27 million trying to hoodwink Florida voters into thinking Amendment 1 was a pro-solar, pro-environmental measure, the most ever spent on a ballot initiative in Florida.

Thankfully, grassroots efforts to alert voters to the deception spread like wildfire and Amendment 1 fell short of the votes it needed to become law.

Campaign contributions is an area where the utilities excel. An article in the Miami New Times detailed Integrity Florida’s 2018 report: “Florida’s four largest electric utility monopolies gave state-level candidates, political parties, and committees more than $43 million during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.”

According to the story, “Integrity Florida also warns that utilities are pumping money into outside trade associations, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida. Those organizations then say they’re spending that cash on their own to influence elections.”

Their influence has also spread throughout the university system. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, “Universities and professors, funded by fossil fuel and utility special interests, are increasingly producing academic reports, supporting advocacy efforts, and amplifying positions that either recommend policies or provide credence to what the energy industry seeks to achieve in the legislative and regulatory arenas.”

Examples gathered by the EPI highlighted cases where reports funded by utilities attack distributed solar, and where professors and groups funded by utilities question and even criticize the value of renewables in public testimony, academic journals and other outlets.

We can see their influence and read article after article about how they are gaming the system. What other influences do they have that we DON’T see? That’s a question that keeps us up at night.

Even with our professional involvement in solar energy, our primary concern is for Florida’s future. Our state is among the most at risk as the effects of climate change continue to manifest. If the “Sunshine State” continues to be primarily powered through fossil fuels (and guided by those who profit from them), what hope does our country have to make the changes necessary to avoid what is certain to be an uncomfortable future?

But what can we do? If an organization you are involved with is – in your opinion – on the wrong side of an issue you care about, don’t be afraid to ask questions about why they have taken that position. We urge you to stay informed on legislative issues regarding energy. We encourage you to “follow the money” and watch how your elected officials vote. We hope you’ll reach out to your representatives at the local, state and national level to make your voice heard as well as learn what those who are running for office believe about energy policy. Only by getting involved and making our voices heard will we change our future.

Here are additional resources if you’d like to learn more about the utilities’ influence throughout the country:

Florida’s Energy Companies Are Spending More Money Than Ever on Lobbying,” Miami New Times

Strings Attached: How utilities use charitable giving to influence politics and increase investor profits,” Energy and Policy Institute

The Utility Industry’s Influence at Universities,” Energy and Policy Institute

Florida’s Utilities Keep Homeowners From Making the Most of Solar Power,” The New York Times

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