The Florida Supreme Court ruled on January 9 to keep the “Energy Choice” initiative off the Florida ballot in the upcoming general election, siding with investor-owned utilities and quashing an effort to break up their electric monopolies.

Florida’s investor-owned utilities were joined by a number of independent-seeming groups in their effort to keep the measure off the ballot, but those groups have close ties to the utilities and previously have supported attempts to block renewable energy growth in Florida. Some of Florida’s cities also joined the utilities’ effort, but public records now indicate that the cities’ opposition to the ballot initiative had been organized and ghostwritten by the utilities themselves. 

“Energy Choice” was an attempted Constitutional amendment aimed at breaking up the current monopoly structure of Florida’s investor-owned utilities, such as Florida Power & Light (FPL) and Duke Energy. The initiative, run by a political committee called “Citizens for Energy Choices,” would have restructured the Florida energy market to allow customers to choose their energy provider. The initiative backers said that breaking up the utility monopoly and allowing customer choice would result in lower prices and more renewable energy. 

FPL organized and ghostwrote support from Florida cities

FPL Corporate External Affairs Director Juliet Roulhac coordinated closely with South Florida cities throughout the campaign. Roulhac coordinated press statements, met with local elected officials, and provided form letters to cities outlining opposition to the initiative using language directly from the investor-owned utilities, according to emails obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute via public record requests. 

Emails show that FPL External Affairs Area Manager Tim Hogans provided a complete draft of the amicus brief to the city of Pompano Beach and asked the city to submit the brief opposing the initiative, along with other cities in the FPL service territory. Pompano Beach submitted a final version of the brief along with Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Davie. The final version submitted by the cities matches the FPL-provided draft almost word for word.  

The FPL-drafted briefs submitted by the cities highlighted franchise fees as a crucial source of revenue for the cities and a reason to oppose the initiative. Many cities function with a franchise agreement with their investor-owned utilities that sell electricity to their residents; the fee is essentially a pass-through tax added to customers’ monthly power bills and paid to the municipality in exchange for blanket use of city right-of-ways and other services. However, franchise fees are not guaranteed revenue for cities. In fact, depending on how city charters are written, utilities can in some cases walk away from them. In 2018, amid talks about renewing the soon-to-expire franchise agreement for their unincorporated Miami Dade county service territory, FPL decided simply not to renew the agreement. This decision dealt a loss of almost $30 million in revenue for the county. 

Opposition organized by front groups with close ties to FPL

Aside from the cities, much of the opposition to the initiative organized behind a group titled Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy (FARE), whose board members include former State Representative and utility advocate Joe Gibbons. Gibbons has been outspoken against rooftop solar net metering policy, authoring an anti-net metering resolution for utility lobbying group Edison Electric Institute (EEI) via National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) and speaking out against Floridians for Solar Choice in 2015. 

The long list of coalition members who opposed the Energy Choice initiative included many organizations that receive direct financial support from investor-owned utilities, such as Urban League chapters, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Associated Industries of Florida (AIF). Dark money groups such as American Senior Alliance and EnergyFairness (formerly known as Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy), defended the utilities’ position. EnergyFairness is an advocacy group with a history of backing fossil fuel and utility interests. The Huffington Post reported that Mike Nasi, a lawyer representing EnergyFairness, is a “critic of EPA regulations who represents coal and mining interests” and is the “head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Life: Powered PR campaign, which promotes fossil fuels and downplays renewable energy.” 

Despite the fact that Florida voters cannot “retract” their signatures from signed petitions, a political committee sent out thousands of letters to petition signers telling them to do just that – “retract” their signatures from the Energy Choice petition that they had previously signed, as reported in the Miami Herald. The letters were paid for by a group called “Floridians for Truth”, which traces its funding back to Florida Power & Light. “Floridians for Truth” is funded by “Building a Brighter Future for Florida.” “Building a Brighter Future for Florida” is funded by the “Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy,” which received a $10,500 in-kind donation from Florida Power & Light in August of 2019. “Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy denied any connection to the letters in response to questions from the Miami Herald

Florida Power & Light’s new “Solar Together” program originally included a clause blocking Energy Choice petition signers from participating, as reported by the Miami Herald in July, 2019. An original draft of the Solar Together program included a “Limitation of Service” section which stated that it was only open to customers who support “continuity of the program.” FPL staff admitted that they would look to “credible evidence” including whether customers had signed petitions such as the Energy Choice initiative, to identify customers who would not be eligible to participate in the program. FPL staff explicitly described (timestamp 1:14) this clause as a way to disincentivize participation in efforts such as the Energy Choice Initiative. After continued questioning from both the Florida Public Service Commission and the media, the clause was removed. 

When the Florida Supreme Court ruled to keep the “Energy Choice” initiative off the ballot, FARE did not publish a statement, but it did share the resulting news coverage on social media. Long-time Democratic consultant and FARE board member Scott Arceneaux praised the utility’s victory, calling it “The right ruling.”

Header image source: Wikimedia Commons
Public Service Commission image source: Screenshot of video on Miami Herald site
Scott Arceneaux tweet source: Twitter

Posted by Alissa Schafer