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Solar-Energy Initiatives Hope To Brighten Florida's Future

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- With financial backing from Florida's major electric utilities, a political committee pushing one of two competing solar-energy initiatives for the 2016 ballot has quickly amassed nearly $1.5 million.

The committee, "Consumers for Smart Solar," which has received money from Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power, collected $670,000 during September, bringing the group's overall contributions to $1,468,045. The committee began raising money in July.

The utilities collectively accounted for $395,000 of Consumers for Smart Solar's contributions in September, after pitching in $180,000 in August and $115,000 in July.

The committee's largest contribution in September, $200,000, came from a Tallahassee-based group known as "Let's Preserve the American Dream," which was created as a non-profit social welfare organization.

A Tallahassee-based political-action committee with the same name lists its chairman as Ryan D. Tyson and its treasurer as Robert D. McRae, both officers with the powerful business-lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida. Tyson, in an email, said the Let's Preserve the American Dream organizations are entirely different, with separate missions and purposes.

Associated Industries later released a statement and noted that, "If and when AIF does take an official position on either of the two proposed constitutional amendments regarding solar in Florida, we will release an official statement."

The latest financial numbers for Consumers for Smart Solar come as the committee is on the cusp of triggering a Florida Supreme Court review of its proposed ballot language.

The committee is seeking a constitutional amendment that would allow Floridians with solar equipment on their property to sell energy to power companies and "ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."

As of Thursday morning, the Division of Elections website reported that the committee -- whose leadership includes two former state lawmakers, a Jacksonville tea-party founder and a former chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission -- had submitted 66,905 valid signatures.

The state must validate 68,314 of the committee's signatures to trigger a court review.

The committee's monthly fundraising total surpassed the $446,670 raised by "Floridians for Solar Choice," which is spearheading the competing solar initiative. It had collected an overall total of $859,002 between December and Sept. 30.

Floridians for Solar Choice, which has most of its money coming from a political arm of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, is seeking to pass a constitutional amendment that, in part, would allow businesses to generate and sell up to two megawatts of solar power to customers on the same or neighboring properties.

Stephen Smith, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said this week that fundraising and signature collections continue, but they are expected to accelerate if the Florida Supreme Court rules that the initiative's proposed ballot language meets legal requirements to go before voters in November 2016.

The court heard arguments Sept. 1 about the proposed ballot language. If Floridians for Solar Choice gets approval from the Supreme Court, it would need to submit a total of 683,149 valid petition signatures.

As of Thursday, it had submitted 182,660 valid signatures to the state Division of Elections. Major electric utilities oppose that ballot proposal.

(The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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