As we've told you earlier, there's a big, OK Corral-style showdown going on in Florida over the future of solar energy. On one side of the debate, you have a small yet scrappy band of private businesses who rig homes with solar; on the other, Florida's powerful utilities, who over the course of the summer have blocked the rooftop industry from sitting in on upcoming hearings of Florida's Public Service Commission that will likely shape new policy.
Last month, local State Rep. Joe Gibbons also stepped into the ring, criticizing the current solar policy in a Sun Sentinel op-ed. But the solar industry is now crying foul, claiming Gibbons has a conflict of interest on the issue.
Gibbons currently represents the state's 100th district. The Hallandale Beach Democrat has been term-limited out from another stay in Tallahassee, and he's currently campaigning for a Broward commission seat.
But on July 18, he penned a piece for the daily paper titled "Solar technology still needs subsidies." The piece slams the current state of solar, particularly the practice of "net metering," a state subsidy that allows homes with solar to sell back their excess power to the utilities at full retail price. It's good for the solar homeowner, but Gibbons argues the difference falls on lower- and middle-class homeowners.
But what both Gibbons and Sun Sentinel failed to mention was that the state representative is tied to the same public utilities that often shoot similar criticism at the private solar industry. Although he's not a lawyer, Gibbons makes around $60,000 a year as a "public policy advisor" for Akerman LLP, the Miami-based power-broker law firm. Previous Akerman clients include Florida utilities, including the local powerhouse Florida Power & Light.
"It seems to me you have a conflict here," says Yann Brandt, a vocal solar advocate and cofounder of South Florida's Demeter Power Group. "When you have someone who comes out against solar policies in a pretty open way, you start wondering where the motivation lies."
Gibbons, however, tells New Times his work at the firm has nothing to do with utilities or solar. He tosses away the allegation. "I wouldn't know anything about them at Akerman," he says. "I'm a public policy advisor; I deal with local government stuff. It has nothing to do with my position."
The state rep says his interest in solar has to do with his position as chair of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators' Energy, Transportation and Environment Committee. The group has passed a resolution on net metering, specifically on how it impacts poor communities.
"I'm for solar; I just want it to be fair," he tells New Times. "Why not put something together where they sell it back at a discounted rate?" Gibbons also says he'd like to see more efforts to extend solar to poorer communities. "They can't afford it. The capital costs are too high. We're in Florida, we're the Sunshine State, why not take advantage of it? But let everyone. That's the issue everyone wants to get away from."
The talk of a conflict of interest, he emphasized, was just a dodge. "I call it the politics of distraction."