The second season of the Emmy award-winning documentary series ‘Years of Living Dangerously’ premiers Sunday, October 30 at 8ET on the National Geographic Channel. Episode one follows David Letterman and ‘Saturday Night Live’ comedian Cecily Strong as the two explore the solar energy landscape and investigate what’s blocking the solar market from growing at even more rapid pace. Letterman travels to India where he interviews Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visits rural villages to find out how solar can play a vital role in the nation’s energy future.
Meanwhile, Strong stays in the U.S. and explores the latest solar controversies between power companies and their customers in Nevada and Florida.
As the trailer shows, Strong gets in the middle of the dueling ballot campaigns in Florida. The ‘Yes On 1 For The Sun’ campaign, sponsored by Consumers for Smart Solar, was created and funded to the tune of $17 million dollars (as of October 14) by the monopoly utility companies in Florida: NextEra Energy’s Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, Southern Company’s Gulf Power, and Tampa Electric. In addition to the utility money, the remaining millions of dollars have mainly come from organizations with close ties to utility and fossil fuel companies, such as the National Black Chamber of Commerce and 60 Plus Association.
The other ballot campaign was sponsored by Floridians for Solar Choice, an alliance of conservatives, libertarians, and environmentalists, who first launched their campaign to open the state to solar competition through third party providers.
It has been reported on a few occasions how the petition gathering process confused many voters, but it will be fascinating to watch Strong report to a national audience exactly how the utility-funded Consumers for Smart Solar duped voters.
But just as National Geographic began rolling out promotional trailers for the episodes, more evidence emerged that has further revealed that the goal of the utility-funded ballot campaign was designed not just to confuse voters and force Floridians for Solar Choice to spend all their money, it was also designed and worded to limit rooftop solar if approved.
On October 18, Mary Ellen Klas for the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reported on leaked audio obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute and the Center for Media Democracy. The audio catches a local utility-tied Florida think tank staffer essentially admitting Consumers for Smart Solar’s Yes On 1 campaign was a well-designed ploy.
James Madison Institute’s Sal Nuzzo told an audience of other State Policy Network think tanks that Consumers for Smart Solar was:
an incredible savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (Floridians for Solar Choice) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.”
He further said:
“The point I would make, maybe the takeaway, is as you guys look at policy in your state or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: solar polls very well. To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums if that’s the direction you want to take, use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”
Consumers for Smart Solar went on to deny a connection to the James Madison Institute but was caught a few days later scrubbing their social media platforms of nearly every reference to the utility and fossil fuel-funded think tank.
Then on October 25, someone who was wearing a t-shirt promoting Raquel Regalado — a Republican candidate for Mayor of Miami-Dade — was photographed handing out slate cards that appeared to be pro-Democrat but urging people to vote ‘yes’ for the utility-backed Amendment 1. The Republican candidate denied any connection to the slate card, and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party said they weren’t behind the slate cards. It is still unclear who was behind the potentially illegal stunt. Florida law requires any campaign distributing information to indicate who paid for the material. Consumers for Smart Solar said it was not them.
Additionally, on October 27, it was reported by Klas that backers of Amendment 1 may have violated Google’s online advertising rules by driving up prices. The advertisements have since been taken down. Again, Consumers for Smart Solar denied any wrongdoing.
Trailers on the Years of Living Dangerously website also show Strong in Las Vegas interviewing people who were in the middle of other solar controversies.
Frustrations with Nevada public regulators and legislators boiled-over when the only investor-owned utility company operating in the state, Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s NV Energy, successfully limited the total amount of rooftop solar energy homeowners were allowed to generate, and then effectively convinced regulators to impose costly new rules for residential solar customers. As a result, solar installations decreased and companies have laid off workers.
Additionally, the Las Vegas-based data company Switch recently sued the Nevada Public Utility Commission after regulators denied its application to leave NV Energy and pursue solar and other sources of renewable energy independently. Switch has since been donating money to a ballot campaign that will allow voters to decide if language gets inserted in the state constitution to create a competitive retail energy market. If approved, the market will allow consumers to purchase electricity from suppliers other than NV Energy.
People who follow the solar policy debates and regulatory utility decisions are keenly aware of what has played out in Nevada and Florida, but it’s great that a national audience will have the opportunity to watch the National Geographic program and understand how some power companies are cynically working to limit the potential of rooftop solar.
More clips of episode one can be found on the Years of Living Dangerously website.