By Michael Dobson

Celebrating the defeat of Amendment 1 by Florida’s Renewable advocates  is  understandable, well deserved, and not  prematurely at the expense of  missing  the broader  meaning of what the electorate said on November 8, 2016.

Amendment 1, its proponents, and its ultimate defeat, provides lessons not only to  investor owned utilities, but also to the renewable energy supporters; lessons which  should caution both about the future. The renewable energy community has always suffered from a lack of access to  financial resources  or funding needed  to fight and win against an entrenched  political juggernaut like the regulated private utility industry. That entrenchment stems from the fact that,  as a group, the investor owned utility lobby  has been around for nearly 100 years. Their key lobbying organizations are  the American Public Power Association (APPA) which was founded in 1940 and the  Edison Electric Institute (EEI) which was organized  in 1933. Consequently, for nearly  a century  they have been lining the coffers of  political parties, individual campaigns and have amassed tremendous political power nationally as a result.  Not only has the renewable energy community historically been unable to compete in that arena where money equal power, but it has often had difficulty speaking with one voice. That difficulty has often stemmed from disagreements about the policy proscriptions that should be pursued by the industry and the fact that different policy proscriptions are needed for differing sources of renewable energy. For instance, the same policy proscriptions of  solar, are not the same ones for say…wind, geothermal, wave energy  or for supporters of biomass.

Because Amendment 1  aimed its animus  toward solar exclusively, and not renewable energy at large, It aided and abetted the renewable energy community and its supporters into organizing in ways that have not been achieved before. However, along with the win by renewable energy enthusiast on November 8, was a back drop of Trumpism, which we still struggle to understand at this point. What the utility industry now knows is that if the average voter gets to weigh in with a statewide ballot initiative, solar wins. Now, one can certainly argue that  because of the reported, and roundly agreed upon  disingenuous nature of the utility industries  overall strategy, voters were  reminded why they mistrust utilities, and revolted against Amendment 1. However, it could also be argued  that our Floridacana romanticism about the “sunshine” state,  exposed solar energy to be the untouchable  third rail in our energy debate, especially when you seek to deny it.

Connecting these realities with Washington, we can expect that the Trump administration will certainly dismantle many of the gains that have been made over  climate policy over the last  8 years. However, how that  dismantling will affect renewable energy policy itself,  and to what degree,  remains a question mark. If Mr. Trump is not an ideologue and is truly pragmatic, the answer to the latter may rest upon  how well the renewable energy community continue to trumpet its improving cost competitiveness, and better describe what will be its long term impact specific to adding new jobs to help grow our economy. So, the federal government through the Federal Energy Regulations Commission (FERC), working with state counterparts such as Florida Public Service Commission(PSC), could help the business side of the industry in such a way to allow the investor owned utilities to  make marginal capitulations to a public, which they now recognize wants more solar energy. Frankly, it would be smart business to ward off a frontal assault from a full throated ballot initiative from the renewable energy community, which could come in the near future. That would be a fight that utilities now know that they will lose.

Further, although some are taking a wait and see approach and some simply bracing for the worst  regarding what a President Elect Trumps administration will mean to renewable energy in practice, the answer may lay in the fact that Mr. Trump is a businessman. In other words, with respect to renewable energy, the view may be that “If it does not make money, then it does not make sense.”  Is it disconcerting that Mr. Trump has tapped  Myron Ebell to lead the transition of  the Environmental Protection Agency, who is a climate change denier and no supporter of renewable energy? Yes. However, this is a president who  is guided by things like assets, liabilities, return on investment, present value and net future value, as well as cost benefit. Mr. Trump  has shown that he is the ultimate arbiter of all things  Trump, so in the end, only he will decide; and  he is looking for a good deal for the American people. Moving forward, we can certainly expect  a fight in congress, as renewable energy advocates will not relent. However, those fights, must now more than ever before,  trumpet  renewable energy as good business. Policymakers must know that renewable energy projects, cleantech innovations, and manufacturing is  good business;  with sustain economic returns, which does not overburden taxpayers when regulations are better structured to encourage their  inclusion. To that point, a healthy discussion about the regulatory scheme that has hampered the industry as it has become more cost competitive is key.

It’s also a fight that any Florida  GOP candidate running statewide in 2018 would not want. Such a fight in Florida on the 2018 ballot would certainly be a disruptor for an election which will likely  include Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for Governor and most likely Governor Rick Scott for U.S Senator. Neither the former, nor the  latter  could be called cheer leaders for  renewable energy expansion in Florida by large scale  independent power producers. However, they have allowed some small concessions for the small businesses that install solar, while  also incrementally  taken those same concessions back . As both leaders  have the legislative sessions of 2017 and 2018 to rectify that past, It would certainly muddy the road to an election victory, if the renewable energy community posts a valid ballot initiative.  Therefore,  it is wiser and cheaper  for all concerned to avoid that fight, and for both sides to digest what the results from Amendment 1 really meant.  That may include pushing the reset button on talks between the renewable energy community, utilities  and our policymakers. In Florida, the voters have certainly stated their wills.

Michael Dobson, is a long time Tallahassee based  lobbyist, Founder of the Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association (FREPA),Founder/ President of Dobson, Craig and Associates (aka Dobson and Associates), and a writer/blogger on politics and public policy. Michael@michaeldobson.org or Michael@talkingfloridapolitics.com

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