It’s not even Election Day and some Floridians are already regretting their votes. That’s because Florida has early voting and many of its citizens are only now discovering that a ballot initiative disguised to look like a pro–solar energy amendment to the state constitution is actually a utility industry effort to quash rooftop solar. And it may succeed.

The con

The ballot initiative, Amendment 1, would change the state constitution to guarantee that electricity consumers who don’t have home solar panels won’t have to “subsidize” those who do. It’s actually an effort by the utility industry to protect its profit margins, but it’s being misleadingly presented as an amendment to promote solar. And the con has worked: Many Florida voters who want to see more solar power have been supporting it.

But the tide turned against the measure two weeks ago, when one of its backers was caught on tape admitting that the amendment was a ruse. The Miami Herald released audio of Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute, a right-wing Florida think tank supported by the utility companies, speaking at a national conservative energy policy conference. Nuzzo called the ballot measure “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.” He advised his counterparts from other states to “use the language of promoting solar” in their own efforts to destroy solar.

Now, with the truth about Amendment 1 finally reaching more Floridians, some are trying unsuccessfully to change votes they have already cast. It’s too late for them, but it’s not too late for the measure to be defeated.

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The convoluted backstory

The story leading up to Amendment 1 began last year. An unlikely coalition came together to make it easier for people to put solar panels on their roofs, aiming to reverse Florida’s anti–free market, anti–clean energy policies. Floridians for Solar Choice — a collaboration between such disparate groups as the Christian Coalition, the Tea Party Network, the League of Women Voters, and the Sierra Club — launched in January 2015 with the intent of repealing Florida’s prohibition on sales of energy by anyone other than the existing utility monopolies. That policy, which exists in only three other states, prevents rooftop solar leasing companies like SolarCity and Sunrun from entering the Florida market. That means the state’s solar growth is badly constricted, since people are more likely to lease a solar array than to put down all the money needed upfront to buy one. Fewer than 20,000 homes have solar panels in the Sunshine State, whereas New York, with a similar population, has 108,000 homes with solar.

The coalition began gathering signatures for an amendment that would allow solar leasing, which they hoped to get onto the November ballot.

In response, utility companies such as Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, working with corporate-aligned conservative advocacy groups and think tanks, came up with a strategy that one prominent Florida conservative boastingly referred to as “political jiujitsu.” Under the guise of an astroturf group called Consumers for Smart Solar, they created a competing ballot initiative that sounds like it is intended to bolster solar development when it actually would help utilities to cripple it. That’s Amendment 1, aka the Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use Initiative.

By throwing their massive financial resources into the campaign to collect signatures for Amendment 1 — they have outspent Floridians for Solar Choice more than 10-1 — the utilities boxed out any hope of an actual pro-solar amendment.

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“They had people using [Floridians for Solar Choice] materials, wearing our shirts, gathering signatures,” says Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a clean energy advocacy organization, and a board member of Floridians for Solar Choice. “This thing has been a deceptive scam from the beginning.”

Florida requires 683,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, which is a high bar to clear. The utility front group made that even harder for Floridians for Solar Choice by soaking up the signatures of pro-solar voters, sowing confusion, and snatching up all the paid signature gatherers with high wages.

“Last fall, you had all these people running around Florida with clipboards getting people to sign,” says Smith. “So they doubled the cost of getting signatures because they had put more money into the street. It took them $10 million to qualify because they paid so much money in the street to hold us back.” (Consumers for Smart Solar did not respond to Grist’s request for an interview.)

Smith and his colleagues were left with little choice but to abandon their initiative and combat Amendment 1, although they also succeeded in eliminating the property tax penalties for owning your own rooftop solar — which they got onto the August primary ballot, and which passed.

The real reason utilities are scared of solar

Florida, like most states, has a net metering policy, which means that when a home rooftop solar system generates more electricity than its owner uses and sends that excess electricity into the grid, the utility pays the owner the retail rate for that power, crediting that amount on her electric bill. If she generates enough solar power, she could end up with no bill at all.

Utilities argue that this is unfair to people without solar panels because they get stuck paying an outsized share of the costs of maintaining the power grid or providing backup power, even though solar panel owners still use grid power when the sun doesn’t shine. This is why utilities claim that non-solar ratepayers are “subsidizing” solar panel owners, and why Amendment 1 is framed as a way to end that “subsidization.”

But, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, it’s actually solar users who are subsidizing everyone else. That’s because distributed power can reduce the cost of grid construction and maintenance by eliminating the need for grid expansion. And clean energy has other benefits that are universally shared, like the health improvements associated with burning less coal and cleaning up the air.

In May, California’s electrical system operator canceled 13 planned transmission expansion projects. They are no longer necessary because rapid rooftop solar expansion in the state has decreased demand for energy from the grid. “Ratepayers saved $192 million and that’s whether they have rooftop solar or not,” notes Albert Gore III, who is in charge of Florida policy efforts at SolarCity. “It’s spread across all of them.”

The real problem here isn’t for consumers, it’s for the utilities. When new transmission lines and other energy infrastructure projects are not needed, that saves consumers money, because their bills don’t get raised to fund those projects. But it costs utilities money, because building new projects is how they make a profit. Their monopoly protection by state governments gives them a guaranteed rate of return on each investment. If they spend $100 million on expanding the grid and are guaranteed a 10 percent profit, they make $10 million.

So utilities see rooftop solar as a threat to their profit margins. In some states, they have responded by lobbying state legislatures to drastically cut the reimbursement rate for homeowners with solar panels, eliminate net metering altogether, or apply other fees to rooftop solar power generation.

Another famously sun-drenched state, Nevada, provides a cautionary tale: Last year, the state’s public utility commission sharply cut the rate utilities will pay solar panel owners for the power they generate, even though the commission’s own study showed that rooftop solar provides $36 million in benefits per year to non-solar ratepayers. “What happened in Nevada was close to a 75 percent reduction in the compensation for rooftop solar, despite the public utility commission doing a study that determined the value of rooftop solar was higher than the retail rate,” says Gore. “By their own measure, net metering was a net benefit for all ratepayers, but they ignored that.”

Solar advocates fear that if Amendment 1 passes in Florida, it will make it easier for the state to roll back net metering or otherwise discourage rooftop solar. “If you put into the state constitution the presumption that non-solar customers are subsidizing solar customers, it gives utilities the ability to go to public utility commissions or the legislature and say, ‘The citizens don’t want subsidization, so we need to put fees on solar customers or dial back net metering,’” Smith explains.

The pushback

“People think it’s conservative versus liberal, but in Florida on energy, it’s really the utilities versus the people,” says Smith. Florida Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations have been key participants in the campaigns to make the state more friendly to rooftop solar and give citizens more energy choices. “It’s uncharacteristic for Florida to be one of four states that doesn’t allow the sale of energy outside of government monopolies,” says Tory Perfetti, Florida director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, a group that advocates for eliminating anti-competitive practices in the energy market, and chair of Floridians for Solar Choice. When the utilities started trying to use government to crush competition from solar, that angered the free-market conservatives even more.

So grassroots groups and activists across the political spectrum have come together in a campaign to defeat Amendment 1. The Floridians for Solar Choice coalition now includes some 200 groups, including such odd bedfellows as Greenpeace and the Libertarian Party of Florida.

The pro-solar side is being massively outspent: The utility front group Consumers for Smart Solar has spent upwards of $25 million to blanket the airwaves with TV ads, while the grassroots coalition has only spent around $200,000. Solar leasing companies have spent some too, to run a few online and radio ads opposed to Amendment 1, but their expenditures are tiny compared to the utilities’.

Without big bucks at its disposal, Floridians for Solar Choice is trying to make its mark with online and on-the-ground organizing. Each group in the coalition is working its social media channels and its email lists, and many are canvassing or calling voters. “We’re doing what you do as a campaign that is grassroots, because we don’t have $25 million,” says Perfetti. “What we do have is experience. Reaching out to folks in the streets. This is a David-and-Goliath fight.”

They’ve also gotten help from the media. Virtually every major newspaper in the state has come out in opposition to Amendment 1. And the pro-solar side was featured in the new season of the National Geographic Channel’s climate change series Years of Living Dangerously.

The movement to stop Amendment 1 got its biggest boost from the leaked recording of Nuzzo. “It’s rare that you have someone being so honest about trying to mislead voters,” observes Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, who obtained the recording and passed it to the Miami Herald.

The utilities are terrified of losing now that their con has been exposed. Last week, in response to Amendment 1’s weakening position, they kicked a bunch more cash into Consumers for Smart Solar, including $2 million from Florida Power & Light, $1 million from Duke Energy, and $250,000 from the 60 Plus Association, a Koch brothers–backed conservative advocacy group.

The state of the race

An amendment to the state constitution requires a 60 percent supermajority to pass. Amendment 1 was polling well above that level earlier this fall — at 84 percent in one September poll. But as word has gotten out about what it would actually do and who’s really behind it, it has been losing support and slipping below the 60 percent threshold.

Solar supporters are optimistic, noting that their side will have a much better turnout operation. “Want to talk about an enthusiasm gap? Those sons of bitches don’t have any grassroots,” Smith says. “All they’ve got is corporate shills they’ve paid to go out and talk, whereas the people on our side have been pissed as hell.”

A handful of Florida legislators, mostly but not exclusively Democrats, have come out against Amendment 1. Others, fearing the wrath of the amendment’s rich and powerful supporters, have stayed on the sidelines. “Because the utilities give so much money, a lot of the elected officials have not had the courage to stand up,” says Smith. “They thought the utilities were just going to steamroll this thing through. But now there’s blood in the water with the leaked tape.”

Given the notorious cowardice of politicians, how the amendment fares will likely influence how they approach solar energy policy going forward. If it is defeated, Florida’s political class may recognize the popularity of home solar and pass laws to encourage it. “As we go to talk to legislators after this vote, there is going to be a large change,” predicts Perfetti. “They’re going to say, ‘We hear you.’”

Politicians, utilities, and activists all across the U.S. will be hearing Florida’s voters too. As Nuzzo admitted to his fellow conservatives, this is a test case.

“This is being viewed as a blueprint for how to combat solar around the country,” says Gore. “If the utilities can just buy this thing, it will be coming to every state soon. That’s why we need to stop this now.”

Also read: Ballot measures to watch on Election Day.

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