Power Play: Florida's Monopoly Utilities & How We Fight Back
- May 5, 2021 2:26 pm GMT
Solar United Neighbors last week hosted a webinar with the Energy and Policy Institute, Earthjustice, and Majority Action on the topic of Florida’s investor owned, monopoly utilities, their influence on regulations and policies, and what that means for Floridians. Over a hundred folks logged in to join in the conversation, but in case you missed it, here is an overview of some of the information we covered. You can also view the entire webinar here.
In general, how influential are the utilities on FL’s lawmakers?
The short answer here is: Extremely. Florida utilities’ influence extends far beyond what would be natural for a power company providing electricity to customers. From local city councils, to the state legislature, to the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), utilities invest in building and maintaining influential relationships with the lawmakers who regulate them. That influence includes things like multiple lobbying firms and dozens of lobbyists, utility staff focused solely on government affairs, millions of dollars in political donations, and additional millions in donations to community organizations and non-profits. While it is expected that utilities would work closely with the lawmakers in their service territories and admirable that they make charitable donations, the problems start when these relationships and charitable “gifts” come with strings attached, even if it’s limited to implied pressure, or keeps critical voices silent.
In the last election cycle here in Florida, investor-owned utilities spent over nine million dollars in political donations, according to state filings. The donations were heavily focused on Republicans and corporate interest groups such as Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) whose political committees received nearly two million dollars from utilities. Political giving in the current 2022 election cycle has already begun to ramp up, with utilities already giving over $566,000 in the first three months of 2021.
Charitable donations with strings attached
The Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) published a report titled “Strings Attached: How utilities use charitable giving to influence politics and increase investor profits” that analyzed the use of donations from utilities to community organizations that were then asked or expected to publicly advocate for utility-friendly policies. Two recent examples in Florida included NextEra Energy-supported charities advocating in support of bill increases and advocating against energy efficiency programs. These policy stances were in direct conflict with the communities that these organizations aim to serve, which raises questions.
In 2016, Florida Power & Light (FPL) requested a $1.3 billion rate increase, similar to the nearly $2 billion that it is requesting this year. As part of the rate case process, the PSC held a series of public hearings around the state to receive public comment for its consideration. Several FPL customers connected to community and charity groups that received support from the NextEra Energy Foundation (the charitable arm of FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy) and FPL directly lined up at each hearing to speak out in support of FPL, while the vast majority of the public comments, as well as the comments submitted to the docket in writing from customers, spoke out explicitly against the increase. The majority of customers who spoke in favor of the rate increase also indicated that they were asked by FPL, or by a friend or family member who worked at FPL, to attend and share their comments in support of the utility.
In one example, at a Fort Myers hearing a United Way employee was careful to include the phrase “I can’t speak to any rate hikes” in their comments but shared that United Way and FPL enjoyed a “terrific partnership.” According to the 990 forms for the NextEra Foundation alone, not counting any direct contributions from NextEra Energy, that partnership involved nearly $2 million dollars in contributions to United Way chapters over the five-year period of 2013-2017. The bulk of the contributions went to the Palm Beach and Broward County chapters, with their annual amount consistently reported as $100,000 to Palm Beach and $85,000 to Broward. NextEra Foundation president and FPL CEO Eric Silagy is also a regular speaker at United Way galas and events.
There are many additional examples of charities and non-profit organizations that have received monetary support from FPL attending the rate hearings and providing supportive comments. (Video coverage of the hearings can be viewed on this Florida Public Service Commission page, under the “Hearings” tab.) The Office of Public Counsel, which represents the people of Florida in cases before the PSC, often asked speakers to identify if they were asked to attend or received support from FPL. Thanks to the questions from the Office of Public Counsel, the public was able to hear that many organizations present in support of FPL received some form of funding or support from FPL.
Several chambers of commerce reminded the PSC of the charitable work that FPL does, while declining to explicitly state their support of the rate increase. Normally business interests do not support increased costs. FPL CEO Eric Silagy is a board member of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and FPL made a $150,000 commitment to the organization in addition to $100,000 contributions in 2016 and 2017, as reported on the NextEra Foundation 990.
What happens when community organizations or lawmakers push back?
Many elected officials and organizations continue to accept donations from utilities, while stating that the money has no impact on their decisions, such as Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, as reported by Tampa Bay Times. Stephanie Porta, the executive director of Organize Florida, a group that promotes and campaigns for social, racial, and economic justice, highlighted the cognitive dissonance created by those positions, telling the Tampa Bay Times, in reference to Fried: “She’s taking money from all of the people we fight against.”
Nationally, the NAACP is another organization with a track record of fighting for an end to racial discrimination, including by highlighting and combatting environmental and climate injustices. Over the years, however, utilities have attempted to attract support, or at times just the appearance of support, from local NAACP chapters for their agenda, often while dangling funding to those chapters. The NAACP has decried the practice. The New York Times covered this issue in 2020 with an in-depth look at the utility/NAACP relationships in a number of states including Florida
Adora Nweze, the president of the NAACP’s Florida conference, was a focus of FPL’s efforts to co-opt the conference’s members to support the utility in efforts to weaken rooftop solar and energy efficiency programs. FPL donated at least $225,000 from 2013 to 2017 while those efforts were ongoing, according to invoices obtained by The New York Times. Ms. Nweze’s quote provided to The New York Times says it all: “I felt that if we wanted the money, we had to do it,” she said. “The shortcoming on my part was that I didn’t have the necessary knowledge to know that it was a problem.” The Florida NAACP has since stopped advocating on behalf of utilities, under Nweze’s leadership. The national NAACP office has also published two editions of a report titled “Fossil Foolery: An Illustrated Primer on the Fossil Fueled Industry’s Deceptive Tactics.”
Utility influence on regulatory bodies
The Public Service Commission (PSC) is the primary regulator of Florida’s investor-owned utilities. The PSC is an appointed body in Florida, with members nominated by a Florida Senate committee and selected by the Governor, as Bradley Marshall of Earthjustice explained on the webinar. The lawmakers on that committee usually receive donations from the utilities throughout their political careers, many of them accepting tens of thousands in donations from utilities via their own political committees, or PACs. Senator Passidomo, for example, who served on the committee from 2017-2020 and whose daughter is currently being considered by Gov. Ron DeSantis for a newly opened Commission seat, has received over $80,000 from utilities over the years.
The webinar also highlighted a current petition by the Center for Biological Diversity that has been filed at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The petition asks that FERC change its accounting rules to make it harder for utilities to charge ratepayers for utility and trade association dues. These associations and trade groups spend a significant portion of their time on advocacy and lobbying for utility-friendly policies and regulations that are often not in the best interest of ratepayers, yet ratepayers are frequently forced to pay for this advocacy. At the time of the webinar, Solar United Neighbors had submitted over 1750 public comments and its own comments in support of the petition to not allow utilities to charge ratepayers for utility association dues. People can take action here.
Utility investor concerns
There are increasing concerns among shareholders about utilities’ involvement and influence in politics, as Bill Ragenof Majority Action explained. Majority Action focuses its efforts on the investor community, working to hold utility leaders accountable and responsive to shareholders’ concerns over utilities’ role in climate change. One of the direct connections between utility shareholders and Florida politics are the state’s pension funds. According to Ragen, the Florida pension system has about $200 billion in assets under management and is overseen by Gov. Ron DeSantis, State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and State Attorney General Ashley Moody, all of whom are elected officials that receive campaign contributions from Florida’s investor owned utilities. Ragen shared resources for webinar attendees to learn more about working with investors alongside Majority Action, and also shared information about Climate Action 100+ - a global alliance of investors asking for more transparency.
What can Floridians do?
The webinar panelists encouraged attendees to take a page out of the utilities’ own playbooks and spend time building relationships with their own lawmakers, as well as taking time to speak up at public hearings, such as the rate increase hearings which are coming this year. This outreach can happen in a number of different ways, with examples ranging from tweeting at elected officials, to signing petitions, to personal phone calls, visiting their office, or giving public comment at meetings and hearings. It is crucial that elected officials hear from their constituents to counteract the vast resources that utilities spend influencing their decisions.
Folks can get involved at every level, from city councils, to the state legislature, to the PSC. In partnership with groups such as Solar United Neighbors, the Energy and Policy Institute, Earthjustice, Majority Action, and so many others, Floridians have the ability to make a real impact on policies that impact the type of energy they are sold and their energy bills every day. Webinar panelists talked about how Florida’s utilities have recognized the popularity and cost effectiveness of clean energy, a step in the right direction, and one that largely happened because of grassroots efforts over the last several years. In order to continue the transition to clean energy, it is crucial that these efforts continue.
You can learn more about the participating organizations here: