By John Roberts
In the science fiction series “Star Trek,” if matter and anti-matter ever came together, there would be a huge explosion and the universe would cease to exist. In Florida, a diverse coalition of groups will put that theory to the test, all in the name of expanding the use of solar power.
The strange bedfellows that have come together include the Tea Party, the Christian Coalition, libertarian groups and left-wing environmentalists. Their goal — to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot in Florida that would make solar power more widely available in the Sunshine State.
Debbie Dooley — founder of the Atlanta Tea Party — is leading the charge.
“Being good stewards of our environment, craving energy freedom and choice is not a leftist issue. It’s not a radical right issue. It’s an American issue,” Dooley told Fox News.
Under current Florida law, only utilities can sell electricity to customers. Businesses and homeowners can install solar panels on their properties, but any excess electricity must be put back onto the grid.
The amendment this so-called “Green Tea Coalition” is aiming to put on the ballot would allow individuals or businesses with solar installations to sell power to tenants or neighbors. For example, if a shopping mall owner put a large solar panel array on the mall roof, they would be able to sell the electricity to the individual store tenants.
The law would also allow people to escape the big upfront costs of installing solar by ending the prohibition on leasing solar panels. Companies selling solar panels could put up an array in, say, a hotel parking lot, then lease the panels to the hotel for less than the cost of comparable electricity from the utility.
“This ballot initiative is a great example of where you need people from across the political spectrum to take on monopoly power,” said Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one of the environmental groups that has teamed up with the Tea Party.
But the oddball coalition also evokes the famous line from the film “Ghostbusters” about “dogs and cats living together.” So how do groups who might normally be scratching and clawing at each others’ throats over a wide array of issues work constructively on this one?
“We put blinders on,” said Dooley. “And we have a mutual respect for our differences. I respect he has a right to believe the way he does and I have the right to believe the way that I do.”
Smith concurs. “Just because some conservatives disagree with us on, say, climate change or something like that, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”
Dooley’s Green Tea Coalition just had a victory in neighboring Georgia. The utilities there agreed to allow third-party installation of solar panels generating up to 10 kilowatts of power on homes or businesses. That’s enough to power the average house on a sunny day and have a little left over. With no opposition from the utilities, a bill to change Georgia law is expected to pass easily.
But the measure in Florida is a whole different ball game. It would allow for private generation of up to two megawatts of solar power. That would be enough to power 300 homes. Or a medium-size shopping mall — or an entire WalMart store. That’s real power. And that concept is expected to meet some heavy opposition from utilities and the fossil-fuel providers that keep the lights on.
Dooley says she has already been attacked by groups aligned with the billionaire Koch brothers, who have huge interests in energy.
“I’ve been called a fake conservative, a front for the left,” Dooley told Fox News. “If you Google my name, you’ll see how laughable that is. I’ve been called many things, but I’ve never been called a tree hugger or a liberal.”
Everyone involved in the push for an amendment anticipates the Kochs and Florida utilities will come after them with a big money campaign to kill it. All the more reason, says Stephen Smith, for the coalition to hang tough.
“We are not going to be able to beat billion-dollar corporations if we can’t hang together,” Smith told Fox News. “We all recognize the sort of David and Goliath type of thing. We have got to stand together or we will get mowed down.”
To get the measure on the ballot, the Green Tea Coalition must collect nearly 700,000 signatures and get the go-ahead from the Florida Supreme Court. In order to pass, it must receive 60 percent approval from voters.
A poll conducted last fall by Republican pollster Whit Ayres found 74 percent of Floridians approve of what the measure is trying to accomplish.
The vice chairman of the Florida Libertarian Party, Alex Snitker, who is a member of the coalition fighting for the amendment, believes that even in the face of a massive opposition campaign, they can get it done.
“If we can get this thing on the ballot, it will pass,” Snitker told a press conference. “They can throw everything but the kitchen sink at it, but it will pass.”
John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.